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Attorney General

Volume 611: debated on Thursday 26 May 2016

The Attorney General was asked—

Rape Offences: Conviction Rates

1. What assessment he has made of reasons for variations between police force areas in conviction rates for rape offences. (905092)

13. What assessment he has made of reasons for variations between police force areas in conviction rates for rape offences. (905131)

There are a number of factors at various stages that are likely to have an impact on conviction rates for rape, but the Crown Prosecution Service is committed to improving the rate by working closely with partners in all police force areas. To provide the consistency of approach that is necessary, networks of violence against women and girls co-ordinators have been established.

CPS national guidance suggests that improvements have been made through the appointment of rape specialist prosecutors. However, their success is entirely dependent on the evidence referred to them in the first place, as one of my constituents, who was raped while away at university, found to her distress. Will the Solicitor General comment on any link between reported offences of rape that are never referred to CPS rape specialist lawyers for a decision to prosecute and the conviction rates for rape in police force areas?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I listened with some concern to the case she cited. I am glad to say that in her area—the north-west—the area rape and serious sexual offences unit has been generating an improvement in the conviction rate, which has gone up by almost 10% in the last year. However, she is right to talk about the earlier stages, and the co-ordination I mentioned is all about early investigative help, which should make the experience for victims better. Experience shows that attrition rates are far too high.

So why does the Solicitor General think there is a difference between rates in police forces, with 35% being one of the lowest rates and 80% the highest? What specifically can the CPS do?

The hon. Lady is right to refer to those regional variations, which are concerning. I am glad to see a strong commitment to a greater national approach to this issue. That is why the setting up of RASSO units in every area is vital. The CPS has recruited a further 102 specialist prosecutors, with a further phase of recruitment due to take place, which will help to drive conviction rates up.

In Northern Ireland, there were more than 28,000 incidents with a domestic motivation in 2014-15, and there were 2,734 sexual offences, including 737 cases of rape. Not only are conviction rates too low across the UK, but the number of incidents is still too high, particularly considering that many victims of domestic violence do not come forward. What steps are the Government taking to reduce the number of offences? Have they considered an education programme for boys and girls in school?

I am grateful, as always, to the hon. Gentleman. I am happy to say that, in England and Wales, the overall number of cases being brought—not just of rape but of associated violence and sexual abuse in a domestic setting—continues to increase, which means justice for thousands more victims year on year.

What steps has the hon. and learned Gentleman taken to ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service discusses with the police the type of evidence that needs to be on the file sent to it to secure a conviction? Has he reviewed with the Home Office police forces that are accused of putting too many rape cases in the “no crime” category without investigation?

To answer the hon. Lady’s latter point first, that is obviously an operational matter for the police, but the general principles and policy issues arising from it are important. That is why the Attorney General and I take great interest in the important work of the RASSO units—the specialist prosecutors—that work with the police at an early stage to identify the sort of evidence that is needed to secure convictions. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that point.

Serious Fraud

2. What steps the Serious Fraud Office is taking to help prevent serious fraud and other economic crimes. (905093)

Over the past 18 months the Serious Fraud Office has secured, for example, its first contested conviction for rate rigging, its first conviction of a corporation for offences involving bribery of foreign officials and its first deferred prosecution agreement.

But in 2015, as a result of the 3,000 cases reported to the dedicated fraud line, the SFO opened only three cases. What is the reality of why the SFO does so much less than the Government’s rhetoric suggests?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I am sure, that there is more than one body in the system that prosecutes fraud. The Serious Fraud Office deals only with the most complex and difficult cases, so it is not surprising that of all the cases reported, not all of which will be prosecuted by anyone, it deals with only a small proportion. It is set up to deal with the most difficult and complex cases, and that is what it does.

14. Is it not important that not only the Serious Fraud Office but all other Government agencies have access to communications data in order to ensure convictions? (905132)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Communications data are important in the prosecution of all types of offending. For example, the vast majority of prosecutions in terrorism cases involve such data, but they are also used in relation to fraud. That is why the Investigatory Powers Bill currently before the House is so important.

Is the Attorney General conscious of the fact that there is a deep problem in the Serious Fraud Office, in that it is underfunded and under-resourced and cannot attract the greatest talent for complex cases? Is he aware that it is believed that £400 million of British taxpayers’ money is still affected by the disaster with the Icelandic banks and should be retrieved? Will he look at the close relationship that the SFO has with the big accountancy firms, which do not have the necessary expertise in-house, and will he look particularly at Grant Thornton in that respect?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise that I am not going to comment on specific cases. He will understand that it is the responsibility of the director of the Serious Fraud Office to decide whether to open investigations and prosecutions. In fact, the core funding for the Serious Fraud Office has increased, not decreased. It also has access to so-called blockbuster funding to enable it to take on very large and substantial cases when the need arises. Were it to retain that core capability throughout a given period, it would sometimes not be using it to its fullest extent when such cases were not on its books, which is an appropriate way to proceed. We will always make sure that the Serious Fraud Office has the funding it needs to prosecute the cases it ought to prosecute.

I listened carefully to that response from the Attorney General, because this week’s report from Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate into the Government’s arrangements for the SFO found that the blockbuster funding model does not represent value for money and is incompatible with long-term strategy for building prosecutorial capability and capacity in-house for future investigations and prosecutions. Will he look at alternative funding models to ensure that the SFO is on a sustainable footing and not, in effect, subject to a Treasury veto?

The hon. Lady will recognise that the report from the chief inspector, which I asked him to produce in order to look at the way in which the Serious Fraud Office is governed, was a very balanced report that also put forward some very positive points about the way in which the Serious Fraud Office has improved under the direction of the current director. She is right, however, that questions were asked about the funding model. There is a balance to be struck, as I indicated to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). We have to make sure that the Serious Fraud Office has the money it needs, and we will. The director will never refuse to proceed in a case for lack of funding, so there is no Treasury veto as she suggests. However, we have to balance the need for that money with the need not to have unused capacity that is being paid for by the taxpayer. The blockbuster funding model has so far been considered to strike that balance correctly, but I will of course look carefully at what the chief inspector says, and we will consider whether further change is appropriate.

Pro Bono Legal Services

4. What recent steps he has taken to promote (a) public legal education and (b) the provision of pro bono legal services. (905096)

7. What recent steps he has taken to promote (a) public legal education and (b) the provision of pro bono legal services. (905099)

8. What recent steps he has taken to promote (a) public legal education and (b) the provision of pro bono legal services. [R] (905100)

11. What recent steps he has taken to promote (a) public legal education and (b) the provision of pro bono legal services. (905129)

As Government pro bono champions, the Attorney General and I continue to support, through our co-ordinating committees, a number of projects that reinforce how important pro bono work and public legal information are, not just domestically but internationally.

Clearly the actions of certain lawyers bring the profession into disrepute, but thousands of people across the country achieve justice through pro bono work. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that lawyers who give their time free of charge are helping justice in this country?

In the last financial year, £601 million-worth of work was provided pro bono by lawyers in private practice—that is, barristers, solicitors and legal executives. They recognise that the time they give makes a real difference to people who would otherwise be denied access to justice.

Small community-based charities that provide services such as community transport, luncheon clubs and after-school activities play an important role in our society, but they often operate under immense financial pressure. What is my hon. and learned Friend doing to encourage more law firms to provide pro bono legal services to those small charities, to help them cut their running costs and focus their resources on making a difference in our communities?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. It is right to pay tribute to the existing pro bono commitment by the legal professions, working alongside the voluntary sector, to providing trustee support and other advice to a range of local charities in both her constituency and mine, and in many other communities the length and breadth of the country.

Does the Solicitor General believe that public legal understanding has caught up with the legal changes in relation to sexting and revenge pornography?

Public legal education has an invaluable role to play. I have seen at first hand in schools how the Citizenship Foundation, with the support of lawyers, runs sessions on issues such as social media and the law. The particular issue that my hon. Friend raises is extremely sensitive and important to young people in particular, and I believe that running the appropriate courses can teach them about the consequences of such criminal acts.

The legal profession may have its detractors, but one of its finest traditions is that lawyers are encouraged to undertake pro bono work. What more can be done to take pro bono work into our schools, both in Dorset and across the country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who, as a barrister of some distinction in the south-west, speaks from experience about his work and the role of pro bono in the profession of which he and I are part. I urge him to liaise with law firms in his constituency, which he will know well, to spread that work through schools and colleges in his part of Dorset and the wider area.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) will put that tribute on his website in a matter of minutes.

I thank the Solicitor General for his replies on this topic. How can the Government further help the efforts of charities such as LawWorks, a pro bono legal advice service supported by the Law Society that targets the most needy and has offices across the UK?

My hon. Friend is right to mention LawWorks, which has been an active member of the pro bono co-ordinating committee for several years. Since October 2014, the Ministry of Justice has provided funding for the litigant in person support strategy, which is designed to help third sector organisations deliver increased support to litigants in person. I am sure that he will put that on his website.

I have done a fair bit of pro bono legal work in my time as well. It is often a substitute for inadequate access to legal aid, which was greatly cut under the last Government. Will this Government consider using interest on client account for legal aid? Each solicitor in private practice has to have a client account in which the client’s money is kept separately and earns interest. In some jurisdictions, such interest is used to fund legal aid. The Government should consider that for England.

I appreciated the constructive part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, and my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice should look at the idea. I am cautious about compulsion, however, because one of the great things about pro bono is that it is voluntary. It is all very well for him to criticise the Government for cuts to legal aid, but he will remember, because he was a Member of Parliament at the time, the so-called Access to Justice Act 1999, when a Labour Government destroyed civil legal aid, so I will not take lectures from the Labour party.

I have always been a supporter of pro bono work—both while I was a practising barrister, before I entered this House, and since—but does the Solicitor General agree that because pro bono work is voluntary, as he said in his last answer, that is precisely why it could never be used as a policy solution to sort out the Government’s cuts to legal aid?

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, neither the Attorney General nor I—nor, indeed, the Government—advocates pro bono as a substitute. It is an adjunct to legal aid, and it always should be.

Nobody will deny the worth of pro bono, and everybody will welcome it, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) said, it is no substitute for access to justice. So that we know which areas get that justice, will the Solicitor General agree to publish a list of how many hours of pro bono are available in each geographical area? That would help us to know whether there is access to justice.

With respect to everybody who works in the pro bono area, I do not want to detract from the important work of pro bono by pretending that it is somehow a legal aid service. It is not; it is voluntary. It is a vital part of what it is to be a lawyer. Not only does it provide a benefit for those whom it serves, but it is an important part of the career development of lawyers. The Conservative party is committed to funding our legal services, and we are spending just short of £2 billion a year on legal aid. It sits very ill for the Labour party to lecture us about the amount we spend on legal aid when it merrily cut legal aid while in office.

I declare an interest in that my wife is a part-time tribunal judge and legal aid lawyer.

We all praise the work of lawyers who give up their time to offer advice and assistance, just as we praise law centres and citizens advice bureaux, but does the Minister agree that those individuals and organisations cannot possibly fill the gap left by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012? In April 2010, more than 470,000 people received assistance on social welfare matters. Just 12 months after LASPO, the number was down to 53,000—a drop of 90%. Will the Minister please urge the Justice Secretary to bring forward the promised review of LASPO?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. Again, although I think it is absolutely right for us to celebrate the work of barristers, solicitors and legal executives in providing pro bono work and public legal education, this country still enjoys one of the most generous and widespread legal aid systems in the world. That is something of which we should be proud and which we should celebrate. It is absolutely wrong for the Labour party to seek to take the moral high ground given that I watched it cut the legal aid system during its 13 years in power.

Disability Hate Crimes

5. What assessment he has made of reasons for variations between police force areas in conviction rates for disability hate crimes. (905097)

A number of factors are likely to have an impact on the variation in conviction rates for disability hate crimes. I am actively considering them, and I believe that the best practice to provide consistency of approach is the network of hate crime co-ordinators that the Crown Prosecution Service has established, which includes a focus on the important issue of disability hate crime.

I thank the Solicitor General for his response, but there were an estimated 62,000 disability hate crimes in 2013, only 574 of which resulted in prosecution. As he said, there was huge regional variation in the prosecution rate. Is he as concerned as I am about that, and will he be a bit more specific about how he will address it to ensure that convictions for disability hate crime do not depend on where people live?

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady, who will know that I have a long-standing interest in the issue. In fact, I travelled to her region, the north-west, some months ago and met a local advocacy group based in Preston that deals with third-party reporting. Naturally, a lot of people with disabilities do not have the confidence to go straight to the police. I believe that through third-party reporting mechanisms we can bridge the gap between the 62,000 cases she mentioned and the small number of prosecutions. We have to improve that rate.

These are terrible crimes. One of the problems is inconsistency between police areas. Does the Solicitor General agree that an important role for the College of Policing is to make sure standards are consistent throughout the country?

The right hon. Gentleman is correct in his assumption. There was an invaluable round table at the national College of Policing in September, which I attended and spoke at, involving regional leads from all parts of the country. It was designed precisely to deal with hate crime, and disability hate crime in particular. By sharing best practice, such as the third-party reporting mechanisms I mentioned in my answer to the previous question, we can improve and raise the rates in relation not just to hate crime but to all crimes committed against people with disabilities.

Scotland Act 2016

9. What discussions he has had on devolution to Scotland with the Advocate General for Scotland since Royal Assent was received to the Scotland Act 2016. (905127)

As the House would expect, I very regularly meet the Advocate General for Scotland, and my conversations with him cover a wide range of topics.

Human rights are not conferred by the new Scotland Act because they are already devolved—they are not listed in schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998. Does the Attorney General accept that changing Scotland’s framework of human rights will require a legislative consent motion from the Scottish Parliament?

I am always amazed at the ingenuity of Scottish National party Members in asking the same question in a slightly different way every time we meet for parliamentary questions. As the hon. Lady knows, because she has previously heard the answer, the Human Rights Act 1998 is not a devolved matter but a reserved matter, and the whole United Kingdom Parliament will consider it when we bring forward proposals for change.

I am genuinely mystified at our apparent ingenuity. Clearly, human rights are not listed in schedule 5. Schedule 5 is the exhaustive list of reservations, and human rights are not on it. What is the legal basis for the Attorney General’s assertion? Human rights are devolved to Scotland.

Mr Speaker, I am not sure how many times I can get away with giving the same answer. The position is as I have set out: the Human Rights Act is a matter for the UK Parliament. I entirely understand SNP Members’ frustration at having to sit in a UK Parliament, but I am afraid that that was the decision of the Scottish people and they are going to have to live with it.