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House of Commons Hansard
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27 October 2016
Volume 616

The Attorney General was asked—

Cybercrime

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1. What recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to set out its approach to prosecuting cybercrime. [906823]

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The Crown Prosecution Service has this very month published guidelines on crimes involving social media, and it will publish a broader cybercrime strategy and guidance for prosecutors this autumn. All CPS prosecutors already have access to training on how to deal with cybercrime.

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Last week’s internet of things bot attack, which brought down Twitter and Spotify, among other sites, was the result of tens of millions of household devices, such as baby monitors and televisions, being hijacked by cyber-criminals. This Government have been perilously slow to recognise the real harm that online scams and viruses do to our constituents. What is the Solicitor General doing to ensure that the CPS can respond to internet of things attacks?

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The hon. Lady will know that the Government have in place many measures to deal with prevention; she is quite right to talk about the internet of things. When it comes to prosecution, I am confident that the CPS understands the international nature of this crime, particularly the exploitation by organised crime groups of cybercrime across the world and the need for co-operation with other jurisdictions to deal with it. Our cybercrime strategy will address a lot of the concerns she has expressed.

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Do we not rely too much on prosecution guidance when it comes to cybercrimes, such as online abuse, when there is no substitute for clear primary legislation? Will my hon. and learned Friend carefully consider the proposals of the Law Commission’s 13th programme of law reform, which looks at offensive online communications, and will he advise our right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor that this should be a top priority?

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I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the work she has done and continues to do to tighten up the law on offences such as revenge pornography. I believe it is incumbent on the police and on prosecutors to use the existing law more thoroughly, but if there is a case for further reform, the Government will of course look at it very carefully.

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Has the Solicitor General seen that over 100 Members of Parliament have now signed a letter to President Obama on the case of Lauri Love, who is going to be extradited to the United States to face trial for hacking into government files? Does he realise that this young man is on the autism spectrum, has severe mental health challenges and may not survive such a journey?

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I am very conscious of that case, as I have a strong interest in autism issues. I have to emphasise that it is of course a matter for the courts—there has been a court procedure relating to this issue—so I am loth to make direct comment on the case, but I am certainly following it very carefully.

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There is little doubt that there has been a huge increase in cybercrime of all sorts over the past few years. Does the Attorney General think we have the specialist knowledge we need within all our law enforcement agencies to tackle the problem?

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My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. It is vital that the investigatory and prosecutorial authorities understand the global nature of cybercrime. I am confident that the new strategy, to be published very shortly, will address the very concerns that he has raised.

Vulnerable Witnesses

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2. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that vulnerable victims and witnesses are enabled to give effective evidence. [906824]

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Vulnerable victims and witnesses can already give evidence from behind a screen or via a video link. In addition, having piloted pre-trial cross examination, which allows vulnerable witnesses to pre-record all their evidence ahead of the trial, we will be rolling it out nationally.

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I thank the Minister for that reply. What special arrangements are there to support vulnerable children and under-age witnesses, in particular in cases of abuse or of a sexual nature?

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My hon. Friend is right that those witnesses are of particular concern. I am sure she will be pleased to learn that those kind of witnesses will particularly benefit from pre-recorded cross examination; where it has been trialled—we have trialled it in three court centres so far—about three quarters of the cases have been cases of a sexual nature, and most of the witnesses have been children.

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Does the Attorney General agree that we have to address the issue of having to go to court for initial proceedings, where victims may come face to face with the accused at a very early stage? Victims feel fear when facing the accused. Will he outline what will be in place to help them?

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The hon. Gentleman is right that that is a serious concern for many of those involved in these kinds of cases. That is precisely why the measures I have described are of benefit. If all of a witness’s evidence is pre-recorded, they will not come face to face with the defendant at all. That is a huge benefit.

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With the rise of social media, victims and, in particular, witnesses fear intimidation from the online community. Will my right hon. and learned Friend take into consideration protections in the digital space as well as the physical courtroom?

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Yes, indeed—my hon. Friend makes an important point. We have to deal with a context that is very different from anything we have experienced before. It is important for people to understand that social media is not ungoverned space. The law applies there as it does elsewhere. If those using social media engage in behaviour that would otherwise be criminal, they will find it is criminal there, too.

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I thank the Attorney General for outlining protection for vulnerable victims in the criminal courts. What progress has been made in providing special protection measures for vulnerable victims within family courts?

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We need to look carefully at how we might read across some of the things that are clearly working well in the criminal courts to other types of court. The hon. Lady is right to highlight that. There is huge scope for us to understand more about how people can give their best evidence. That, after all, is what court systems of all kinds should be looking for.

Leaving the EU: Devolved Administrations and Prosecutions

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3. What discussions he has had with devolved Administrations on the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the ability to prosecute criminals. [906825]

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The Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office regularly engage with Scotland’s prosecution service and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland. The Government recognise the importance of retaining good co-operation with European countries on prosecutions, and will continue to engage with the devolved Administrations to seek the best arrangements possible on leaving the EU.

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Post Brexit, will the Government seek to continue to use the European arrest warrant? If not, what will they put in its place?

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As the hon. Gentleman will anticipate, I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the negotiations and discussions we will have. It is of course right that the European arrest warrant and other measures like it are of huge benefit not just to this country but to our European partners as well. For that reason I am optimistic that we will be able to put in place measures that benefit both sides.

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Once we are freed from the freedom of movement rules, will the Crown Prosecution Service seek to prosecute EU nationals who commit crimes in this country and to ban them from returning to this country, which we are not able to do at the moment?

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My hon. Friend will know that at the moment the CPS does indeed prosecute European nationals who commit crimes in this country. Some of the measures I have just described are of assistance not just in returning those individuals to be tried in this country but in gaining the evidence necessary to secure their conviction. As for the measures taken thereafter, sentencing decisions are of course for the courts. We will look carefully at what other measures might become available to the courts once we have left the European Union.

Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

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4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. [906826]

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The number of sentences considered by my office under the unduly lenient sentence scheme has increased by over 108% since 2010, from 342 to 713 requests in 2015. Of those, 136 were referred to the Court of Appeal as potentially unduly lenient, with the court agreeing to increase the original sentence for 102 offenders.

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Stalking causes enormous harm and distress to victims, and the Government have rightly strengthened the law in this area. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider extending the unduly lenient sentence scheme to cover these crimes?

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My hon. Friend will know that as a party we have a manifesto commitment to extend the unduly lenient sentence scheme. A number of offences are surprisingly not included in the scheme at the moment. We need to look carefully at the whole range of criminal offences to decide what should be inside and what should be outside the scheme, but he certainly makes a good case for the types of offences we might consider including in the future.

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Given that the need for an unduly lenient sentence scheme has been conceded, the public are very confused as to why some offences are covered and some are not. Would it not be simpler to have a scheme that covered all offences?

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My hon. Friend makes a tempting proposition to give my office a good deal more work. There is no doubt that one of the advantages of the unduly lenient sentence scheme is that it is available to the public. It does not require the intervention of lawyers and it is, I hope, easy for the public to access. It should also be easy for the public to understand, and I am therefore in favour of drawing the line between cases within the scheme and those outside in a logical and easily understandable place. I would also say that it is important to bear it in mind that, even with an extended version of the scheme, we are talking about a very small minority of cases where judges err in this way. As I said, last year 102 cases were considered under the scheme to be unduly lenient. That is out of about 80,000 sentences passed in the Crown courts that year.

Leaving the EU: International Co-operation

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5. Whether he has made an assessment of the potential operational consequences of the UK leaving the EU on how his office interacts with its international counterparts. [906827]

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We are leaving the European Union, but co-operation with our European and global allies will remain important. My office will continue to engage internationally to promote the rule of law, a shared understanding of international law and global co-operation on criminal justice.

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I thank the Attorney General for that answer, but is not the stark reality that Europol’s director stated that the UK will be demoted to second-tier membership? Will that not undermine the UK Government’s plans to tackle and prosecute money laundering crimes?

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Again, I do not think we should pre-empt the outcome of any discussions that will follow, but, as I said earlier, I think there is an understanding, not just in the United Kingdom but in the rest of the European Union, that the sort of co-operation on crime and security that we have now benefits both sides and will need to continue in order to make sure that we are all safer and more secure, and that we can successfully capture and prosecute the sorts of offenders he describes.

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Is it not fallacious for the remoaners to always say that once we have left the European Union, we will not have access to European institutions? Is it not the case that Europol, the Erasmus programme and the Eurovision song contest all have members who are not members of the European Union?

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I do not think that by grouping them together my hon. Friend is describing Eurovision as a criminal enterprise—although there are those who may say so. It is important, as he says, to recognise that leaving the European Union is not the same as leaving Europe, and it is certainly not the same as being unprepared to co-operate. We will be co-operating with a whole range of partners, because, as I have said, it will be in our mutual interest.

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Given the warnings from Rob Wainwright and given the Attorney General’s duty to the legal profession, will the Attorney General confirm that he will be making the case on Europol, the European arrest warrant—and, indeed, the Eurovision song contest—in the Brexit Tory Cabinet?

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I am unwilling to commit to making the case for the Eurovision song contest, but it is very important that all in this House understand that the Government are committed to continuing our internationalist perspective and to keeping this nation and its citizens safe. I do not think the hon. Gentleman will hear, from any member of the Government, the view that we can do so without co-operating internationally. We will seek to do that just as successfully and just as fully as we have done in the past, inside or outside the European Union.

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How is my right hon. and learned Friend interacting with the Government of Romania? He will know that the Heritage Foundation has recently issued a report saying that the courts in Romania are subject to chronic corruption and political influence.

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I am not going to comment on the status of other court systems. What I will say is that part of the engagement that this country has abroad on the rule of law, in a variety of different countries, is designed to ensure that the long experience that this country has in running effective, efficient and fair court systems is transmitted to others where they ask for our help, and I am sure we will continue in that enterprise.

Prosecution of Sexual Offences

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6. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on ensuring that prosecutors are able more effectively to prosecute cases of rape and other sexual offences. [906828]

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I regularly meet the Director of Public Prosecutions to discuss this and other topics. The Crown Prosecution Service continues to prioritise rape and serious sexual offending and has taken steps to ensure that prosecutors are able to prosecute these cases effectively. Those steps include increasing the number of specialist staff in its rape and serious sexual offences units, providing specialist training for prosecutors and developing closer working arrangements with the police.

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A constituent of mine is a victim of rape. A complete lack of communication and action from the police has left her unable to move on and recover from the horrific ordeal. After a year and a half, the case—which the superintendent deemed “a professional embarrassment”—has finally been brought to the CPS. However, this might not be the end of my constituent’s torment. Does the Attorney General agree that communication with victims is vital in effectively prosecuting offenders and that the Director of Public Prosecutions should ensure that every victim is kept updated, that their views are taken into account on key decisions and that a high level of communication is upheld?

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Yes I do agree, and what the hon. Lady describes clearly does not sound acceptable or in line with the standards we would all expect. There are two things that I think are important. The first is that the prosecutors should be involved as early as possible, so that advice can be given to the police about the development of an investigation with a view to prosecution. The second is to ensure that when a case comes to court, we continue the communication that we should have had up to that point with victims and witnesses and that people are given to understand what is going on around them. Courts can be very confusing places, and we only add to the distress if we do not take the trouble to explain the process to those who are, through no fault of their own, suddenly involved in it. That is one of the things we will look to do better.

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I welcome the increased number of prosecutions for rape, but will the Attorney General outline what more can be done to improve the consistency across different areas and also the prosecution rate?

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My hon. Friend is right that although we should welcome the increased volume of prosecutions that are taking place, there is still a divergence in the way in which this is done across the country. For that reason, the CPS has set up a national delivery board and is looking at ways in which we can understand why those differences exist and is attempting to resolve them. As my hon. Friend says, this is also a matter of making sure that prosecutors are properly trained, as they are, and have the resources they need to do the job well.

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As this is my first question in this role, I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and the fact that I am a non-practising door tenant at Civitas Law in Cardiff.

The Attorney General will be aware of the grave recent concern about the admissibility of a complainant’s previous sexual history in rape trials. Does he agree that single, high-profile cases can give rise to wider perceptions about the law, partly because of the level of coverage they receive, and will he undertake to tackle those wider perceptions?

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I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. It is good to see him across the Dispatch Box. He will be pleased to learn that this is probably the only part of Parliament where he does not have to apologise for being a lawyer.

There is concern about the subject that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and we need to accept that that concern is sensible and deal with it. We need to look at a number of things. We need to understand more about the decision in this particular case. We need to understand whether a change in the law is appropriate and, if not, whether it is sensible to look at the guidance that is given to judges about when such evidence is admissible and at the guidance that judges give to juries about how that evidence should be used. We need to do all those things before we are in a position to understand what, if any, changes are needed.

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I am grateful to the Attorney General for his welcome and I look forward to debating with him and, indeed, my fellow Welsh lawyer, the Solicitor General, across the Dispatch Box.

Prosecution lawyers will, of course, deal with these applications for the admissibility of a complainant’s sexual history before the courts. I am glad to hear that the Attorney General has committed to looking at the guidance given to judges and at what judges say to juries. In addition, will he look at the guidance given by the Crown Prosecution Service to the lawyers who appear before the courts and regularly deal with these applications?

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Yes, I will. He will know that in the case he raises the Crown Prosecution did indeed oppose the admission of this evidence at the Court of Appeal stage. It is certainly worth looking at all the guidance and indeed at the whole picture. This provision is, as far as I am aware, not routinely used, but we must be confident that the message sent to those who are willing but currently worried about reporting these sorts of offences is not that they are not encouraged to do so—quite the reverse; they are. We need to ensure that those messages are clear.