Skip to main content

Attorney General

Volume 613: debated on Thursday 21 July 2016

The Attorney General was asked—

Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union

1. What discussions his Department has had with the devolved Administrations on the timescale for invoking article 50 of the treaty on European Union. (905999)

4. What discussions his Department has had with the devolved Administrations on the timescale for invoking article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. (906003)

13. What discussions his Department has had with the devolved Administrations on the timescale for invoking article 50 of the treaty on European Union. (906013)

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Prime Minister has visited Scotland and Wales already and has made it clear that she wants to achieve the best possible deal for the whole of the United Kingdom on leaving the European Union. She has also made it clear that article 50 of the treaty on European Union will not be triggered before the end of the year.

The Prime Minister has stated that Brexit means Brexit, and the First Minister of Scotland has stated that, for us, remain means remain. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the Scottish people have spoken and that therefore their sovereignty should be respected?

The people of the United Kingdom have spoken and their sovereignty must be respected. The people of the United Kingdom have made their decision on whether to leave the European Union, and we will respect it.

The Prime Minister has indicated that she will not trigger article 50 in the UK until there is a UK approach to Brexit. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that a legislative consent motion is required before the Government have the legal authority to trigger article 50?

It is perfectly right, as the Prime Minister has made clear, that all parts of the United Kingdom, including the Governments of the devolved Administrations, should be able to participate in the process of developing the United Kingdom’s approach to these negotiations. That does not mean that any of the parts of the United Kingdom has a veto over this process: so, consultation most certainly, but veto I am afraid not.

At a time when Brexit is already causing more than enough confusion, the Prime Minister is saying that article 50 will definitely not be triggered before the end of the year, but the Brexit Minister has said that it definitely will be. Will the Attorney General clarify for us who is correct in articulating present Government policy?

No, I do not think there is any confusion. We must ensure that there is clarity about the United Kingdom’s position going into the negotiations, and that we have done that work before we begin them. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is for the United Kingdom Government to determine the point at which article 50 is triggered. We should do so when we are ready.

Will the Attorney General tell my constituents in Kettering what invoking article 50 means? What is article 50? Where is it kept? Is it in a secret drawer in the Prime Minister’s office to which only the Attorney General has the key? Is it a letter that the Prime Minister signs, or is it the Queen who signs it? How will article 50 be invoked?

I can assist my hon. Friend and his constituents to this extent. Article 50 is article 50 of the treaty on European Union and therefore copies of it are kept in all sorts of places. I am not sure whether there is one in my desk, but what it says is:

“A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention.”

As I have said, it will be for the UK Government to do that at a time of their choosing.

I am quite happy with the Government consulting the devolved Administrations, but what concerns me is that we do not finish up being held to ransom by the Scottish nationalists. Whatever the Government try to do, they will never be able to satisfy the Scottish nationalists. Can the Attorney General please reassure me and my constituents, who voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union, that their wishes will not be frustrated by the Scottish National party?

The Prime Minister has been very clear that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union, and that means all of the United Kingdom, but, as I said earlier, it is very important that in the process of exiting the European Union all parts of the United Kingdom have an opportunity to contribute to the negotiations in which we will engage. That is the spirit in which the UK Government will approach this process.

We have to be mindful that the EU referendum was UK-wide, so all parts of the United Kingdom were involved. I hope the Prime Minister will come to Northern Ireland; perhaps the Minister can confirm that. It is important to keep the grants and assistance that Northern Ireland receives.

Indeed. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. I am sure the Prime Minister will wish to visit Northern Ireland very shortly, and she and we have clearly in mind the particular difficulties that will apply to the process in Northern Ireland because of the land border with the Republic of Ireland. The hon. Gentleman will have been present yesterday when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland dealt with this question. The hon. Gentleman knows that it is at the forefront of our minds and we will wish to make sure that we reach a satisfactory settlement.

The new Brexit Minister has said that the UK may be able to stop EU migrants coming to the UK before we leave the European Union, while remaining in the single market. What is the legal basis for this pick-and-mix approach to European law? Does he think that this hubristic attitude will get the UK the best deal in the negotiations?

The legal position is clear. For as long as we remain members of the European Union, the rights and responsibilities that attract as a result of that membership will persist, but it is open to the member states to negotiate different arrangements if they think it is appropriate to do so, and we will see, once article 50 is triggered, exactly how those negotiations play out. The legal position, as I say, is that the rights and responsibilities of member states, and of course of citizens of those member states, will persist for as long as we are members of the European Union.

Female Genital Mutilation

2. What steps the Government is taking to increase the number of prosecutions for female genital mutilation. (906000)

5. What steps the Government is taking to increase the number of prosecutions for female genital mutilation. (906004)

7. What steps the Government is taking to increase the number of prosecutions for female genital mutilation. (906006)

The Government significantly strengthened the law via amendments to the Serious Crime Act 2015 to improve protection of victims through lifelong anonymity and to break down barriers to prosecution. The introduction of a mandatory reporting duty for front-line professionals to identify FGM cases of girls under 18 further improves opportunities for safeguarding and prosecution.

At the age of 11, Valentine Nkoyo was forced to go through female genital mutilation. Nineteen years later she set up the Mojatu Foundation, a social enterprise in my constituency, to use her own experience to raise awareness of FGM, help protect children at risk in the UK and support survivors. Mojatu’s current project aims to create a network of media-trained community champions to help tackle the issues affecting women and girls who are at risk or living with the consequences of FGM, to increase self-reporting. What engagement has the Solicitor General had with community organisations such as Mojatu to address the low level of prosecutions for FGM?

I pay tribute to the work of that community organisation and many others in the network who are fighting the scourge of FGM. The hon. Lady will be pleased to note that I and other members of the Government have regular engagement with community groups. The Department of Health has provided £4 million worth of funding over the past three years in order, among other things, to enhance community engagement so that awareness can be spread and victims need not suffer in silence.

The lack of services to support victims of female genital mutilation is often seen as a reason why so many cases are left unreported. What effect will cuts of 24% to the Crown Prosecution Service have on the reporting of FGM cases?

May I reassure the hon. Lady that the Crown Prosecution Service places great importance upon the need to properly investigate and prosecute, where appropriate, crimes of FGM? It was regrettable that in the years prior to 2010 not one single prosecution occurred. Cultural and other obstacles have prevented the effective investigation and prosecution of this scourge. The work of community groups and the resolution of the Government mean that that is gradually changing for the better.

The Solicitor General will no doubt be aware of the European Commission guidelines on action against female genital mutilation. Notwithstanding the vote on 23 June for the UK to leave the European Union, can the Minister say whether it is still the intention of the Government to accept into British law the recommendations of the European Commission’s report?

With regard to the specifics, that matter needs to be considered carefully, and I will take that away with me. However, on the general principles laid out in that report, there is no doubt whatever that this Government remain fully committed to making sure that FGM is properly explained, properly challenged and properly dealt with, whether that is by prosecution, awareness in the community or other preventive measures.

What steps are the Government taking to ensure that, in communities where, on occasions, a blind eye is turned to this obscenity, people understand that the law will be upheld and that the 130,000-odd young females who are affected will be protected in future, as this will affect others?

The hon. Gentleman is right to reiterate that community engagement and community involvement will be key in making more progress on this area. I am glad to see that, certainly in England, the Department for Education has £2.25 million of funding to invest in awareness of and education about this issue, and I think that will also have a beneficial effect.

EU and Domestic Law: Separation

3. What his role is in assessing the steps that will be required to separate EU law from domestic law. (906001)

My role in relation to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is the same as my role in relation to other areas of Government business: I act as the Government’s principal legal adviser. In terms of seeking Law Officer advice in relation to the UK’s exit, the standard rules in the Cabinet manual apply. The Law Officers must be consulted by Ministers or officials before the Government are committed to critical decisions involving legal considerations.

Have the Government made an estimate of the cost of the vast number of lawyers and trade negotiators that are going to have to be hired to deliver our disentanglement from the European Union? If such an estimate has not yet been made, will the Attorney General please confirm by when he will be able to furnish the House with that information?

We will undoubtedly need the best advice we can have and the best trade negotiators we can have. Of course, the Government already have some of that capacity, but the Department responsible is looking carefully at exactly what additional capacity we will need to gain, and as soon as it is in a position to give that information to the House, I am sure it will do so.

Our membership of the European Union has brought about substantial enhancements in our health and safety laws. Will the Attorney General guarantee that, with leaving the European Union, none of those health and safety laws will be weakened in any way?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are many of those regulations that we will wish to retain, but of course the exercise of looking at exactly which parts of the canon of European law we wish to transfer into UK law, which we wish to adapt and which we may not wish to continue with at all, is a very lengthy one that we will need to continue with. But I agree with him that it will not, in all likelihood, be the case that all of those rules and regulations will be dispensed with altogether, and both businesses and those who are employed by them benefit from some of those measures.

Leaving the European Union will involve repeal of the European Communities Act 1972, which means all secondary legislation made under the Act will automatically fail unless it is re-enacted. Can the Attorney General tell us what steps are being taken, or will be taken, to ensure we have the necessary legislation to guarantee protection on important employment rights, such as transfers of undertakings and paid holidays for employees?

May I first of all say that it is always nice to see anyone on the Labour Front Bench these days, but it is a particular pleasure to see that the hon. Lady retains her position?

I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds): it is clearly the case that the British Government will wish to retain in some form some of the regulations and pieces of legislation she refers to. Of course, the exercise of determining which pieces of legislation is going to be time-consuming and complex, but I have no doubt that what this Government will wish to do is persist with high-quality protection for those in employment in this country, whether that is European legislation or, in future, domestic legislation.

I listened to the answer that the Attorney General gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds). Prior to being elected to this House, I represented families of people killed or injured at work. Most health and safety legislation providing protection for UK workers derives from EU law, and in his answer the Attorney General did not satisfy me that he will provide equivalent or better protection. Does he agree that workers need to be protected against injury, illness and death at work, and that workplace health and safety legislation is essential and not red tape? Will he give this House and, in particular, the families of those killed at work a guarantee that, at the very least, equivalent legislation and workplace protections will be urgently re-enacted?

I agree that injury, illness and death at work must be prevented and dealt with through appropriate legislation and regulation. Of course, we had already sought to protect workers from those things prior to our membership of the European Union, and we will certainly seek to do so post-membership. I do not believe that it is beyond the capacity of this House to design legislation and regulation that will enable us to provide effective protection, and this Government are entirely committed to doing so.

Economic Crime

6. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of introducing a criminal offence of failure to prevent economic crime on the incidence of such crime. (906005)

Under existing law, a company faces criminal liability only if prosecutors can prove that a sufficiently senior person knew about the criminal conduct. That can be extremely hard to prove, especially in large companies with complex management structures. That is why the Government will consult on whether the “failure to prevent” model should be extended to other types of economic offending.

In an increasingly globalised world, international co-operation and co-ordination is key to tackling often very sophisticated economic crime. What is the Serious Fraud Office doing to tackle those crimes, both domestically and overseas?

The Serious Fraud Office does indeed attempt to engage with its counterparts abroad and a variety of agencies in other countries to do its work. Of course, as my hon. Friend may be aware, a “failure to prevent” offence is available in many other jurisdictions, and that is one of the reasons that we believe it is worth considering here.

The Attorney General knows that I have campaigned for much more vigorous action in this sector. I have called for proper resources to be given to the Serious Fraud Office, because it has become far too dependent on this country’s big accountancy firms, and that is the road to ruin and ineffective action.

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s campaigning record. As he knows, the amount of money that the Serious Fraud Office receives as part of its core budget has increased over the past few years and it will continue to increase. As he also knows, it has access to “blockbuster” funding for particularly large and unexpected cases. Of course, this is not just about money; it is also about the tools that the Serious Fraud Office and other investigators and prosecutors have at their disposal. That is one of the reasons why it is always worth keeping this area under review, which is what we are doing.

May I caution the Attorney General? Setting up an offence of failing to prevent a crime committed by another is a very serious step in our legal system. It could affect many hon. Members in everyday life. For example, if they failed to prevent someone from shoplifting, would they be committing a criminal offence? These kinds of things are very difficult and I urge caution on the Attorney General.

The hon. Gentleman is right to urge caution, but what we are proposing does not go anywhere near as far as he is suggesting. The types of offences under discussion are failures by corporate entities to prevent fraud, money laundering and the like. As he will know, there are already similar types of offences on the statute book in relation to bribery, and there will shortly be some in relation to tax evasion. This is an extension of a logical principle and it is designed to ensure that we are able to catch not just those in smaller businesses who are engaged in this kind of behaviour, but those in larger business too.

EU Referendum: Protection of Human Rights

8. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the decision to leave the EU on the protection of human rights. (906007)

I consider the best protection of fundamental rights in the United Kingdom to be UK law. I am, therefore, confident that the decision to leave the European Union will not result in any reduction in the protection of such rights in the United Kingdom.

We now have a Prime Minister who has advocated withdrawing from the European convention on human rights. Can the Attorney General confirm whether that will be Government policy?

As the hon. Gentleman quite correctly observes, we have a new Prime Minister and we also have a new Secretary of State for Justice. Both have been in office for only a little over a week, so the hon. Gentleman will have to be a little more patient.

Hate Crime

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of hate crime. (906009)

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of hate crime. (906010)

I discuss this matter regularly with the DPP, and the Government will publish their hate crime strategy very shortly.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his answer. Given the terrible terrorist atrocities in Nice, Paris and, recently, Germany, many people in this country are fearful that because of their religion or the colour of their skin, they will be the subject of hate crime. What assurances can my hon. and learned Friend give to those people that we will prosecute, to the full extent of the law, anyone involved in hate crime?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the community work he does in his constituency. Hate crime of any kind, whether it is on the grounds of disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity, has absolutely no place in our society. We are utterly committed to tackling hate crime.

A Member of the other place recently received a vile racist letter containing white powder, as did a number of mosques and Islamic centres representing a large Pakistani heritage community in Pendle. The long-term rise in Islamophobia is a serious concern. Will my hon. and learned Friend join me in condemning these racist incidents and advise me whether he believes that the separate recording of Islamophobia as a hate crime is likely to help to bring about successful prosecutions?

The incident that my hon. Friend describes is despicable and shameful, and we must stand together against such hate crime and ensure that it is stamped out. Religious hate crime has been recorded separately since April of this year, at the request of the Prime Minister in her former role as Home Secretary. That will give us a greater understanding of the nature of hate crime.

Reports of hate crimes rose exponentially—by 57%—following Brexit. Is the Solicitor General confident that the Crown Prosecution Service is adequately resourced to deal effectively with these reports and support victims?

The hon. Lady is right to note the alarming spike in incidents of hate crime that surrounded the recent referendum and the weeks subsequent to it. I reassure her that the CPS remains absolutely committed to prosecuting all types of such crime, which, frankly, have no place in our society.

Three weeks ago, I asked the former Prime Minister, and he agreed, to look into setting up a cross-party commission on hate crime following a sharp increase, as yesterday’s statistics revealed. Can the Solicitor General assure the House that that will be achieved as a priority? Will he offer his full support to my West Yorkshire cross-party initiative to tackle these terrible acts?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who speaks with eloquence and passion on these issues. Of course, I give her my full support with regard to the cross-party initiative in West Yorkshire. The former Prime Minister was right to emphasise that it is up to all of us, whichever side of politics we come from, to come together to tackle this scourge. We know what it can lead to, and therefore we have to stamp it out before it becomes something even more vile.