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Attorney General

Volume 618: debated on Thursday 8 December 2016

The Attorney General was asked—

Modern Slavery

1. What steps the Government are taking to increase the number of prosecutions for modern slavery. (907734)

We have the strongest legal framework in the world, including the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which came into force in July last year. The Law Officers are supporting the Prime Minister’s taskforce on modern slavery, and the Crown Prosecution Service continues to see a year-on-year increase in the numbers of prosecutions.

6. What steps the Government are taking to increase the number of prosecutions for modern slavery. (907740)

Good; and the hon. Gentleman may be learned, but if not, I am sure it is only a matter of time.

One of the main areas of modern slavery that we are uncovering in Lancashire is the trafficking and subsequent sexual exploitation of women. Often these victims will not come forward because they are being controlled through fear and violence. What more can my hon. and learned Friend do to support vulnerable women through the process?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. The CPS has been instrumental in developing special measures to help people with vulnerabilities to give evidence, such as the pre-recording of cross-examination, ground rules hearings that are held ahead of the trial in order to avoid inappropriate questions, and evidence via remote link. All such measures help to increase confidence that support will be there for victims.

I call James Cleverly. Not here. I assume the hon. Gentleman was notified of the intended grouping. In that case, where on earth is the fella?

Can my hon. and learned Friend tell me a bit more about what the Crown Prosecution Service is doing to prosecute this type of offence in the north-west of England?

I note my hon. Friend’s interest as a north-west MP, and I am happy to tell her that under the new modern slavery offence, eight charges were laid in the north-west region and eight offences in the Mersey-Cheshire region, plus other offences under older legislation, in the past year. Only last month three people were convicted of modern-day slavery and human trafficking in Liverpool and were sentenced to a total of seven years and three months’ imprisonment.

Many of the prosecutions were the result of the European arrest warrant playing an important part. Will the Solicitor General, with the Home Office, ensure that the European arrest warrant remains a useful tool, whatever the outcome of Brexit negotiations?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to note the huge importance of the European arrest warrant in streamlining the process. That, together with other tools to encourage close co-operation not only between countries in the EU but more widely abroad, is a vital means by which we can deal with what is an international crime.

The Modern Slavery Act review published a few months ago noted that although it is national Crown Prosecution Service policy that all trafficking and exploitation cases be referred to the complex casework unit, in practice the policy is not always followed. What subsequent measures have been put in place to reduce the number of cases that could slip through the cracks in that way?

The hon. Lady is right to point out that important review, which I am glad to say is forming a key part of the Prime Minister’s taskforce. At all levels, proper emphasis is being placed on the serious nature of this type of offending. Let us not forget that other types of offence that encompass such behaviour need to be dealt with as well, so the complex case unit has a key and increasingly important role in the prosecution of such crime.

The Solicitor General is responsible for the prosecution of traffickers, not for the detection of them or for their sentencing. What are the main barriers to his securing successful prosecutions?

My hon. Friend is right to say that these are challenging offences. The problem is that very often the victims of this type of crime take a while to realise that they are in that position. When they come forward, they want a consistent approach from the authorities that gives them support when they come to give evidence. That is the emphasis of the CPS and other agencies, and with that increasing support we are seeing those barriers increasingly being removed.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The independent review commissioned by the Prime Minister that the Solicitor General has referred to expressed concern about the insufficient quality and quantity of intelligence at national, regional and international level, which it is said hampers our operational response. What steps does the Solicitor General think can be taken to ensure that our exit from the European Union does not further hamper our operational response?

May I first welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his place at what is a very challenging time for his family? We give him our very best wishes.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to talk about international working. He will be glad to know that the taskforce, in the form of the National Crime Agency and the other agencies, is placing heavy emphasis on the need to improve that intelligence gathering. When our exit from the EU happens, I firmly believe there will be mechanisms in place to ensure that that important work carries on unimpeded, whether by way of mutual legal assistance or some of the other mechanisms we have opted into, which will no doubt be an important part of the negotiation in the months ahead.

I am very grateful to the Solicitor General for his kind words and good wishes to my family at this time.

The Solicitor General has set out that our membership of the European Union gives us access to a toolkit, including the European arrest warrant, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), and which the Director of Public Prosecutions referred to as absolutely vital. However, there is also access to agencies such as Eurojust, where we have one of the busiest desks. What will the Solicitor General do to ensure that we quickly negotiate a new relationship with Eurojust, rather than ending up in Switzerland’s position, where the negotiation took seven years?

The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise other mechanisms. Eurojust and the European investigation order are other mechanisms that may be relevant. Clearly, they have to form a central part of any negotiation and be a priority for the negotiating team when it comes to the details. As he knows, the CPS is well aware of this issue and has been raising it, and the Law Officers will, of course, play their part in raising these important issues.

Hate Crime

We are committed to tackling hate crime in any form. Forgive me, Mr Speaker, may I apply for this question to be grouped with Questions 5 and 7? The numbering has changed.

7. What steps the Government are taking to increase the number of prosecutions for hate crime. (907741)

As I was saying, Mr Speaker, the cross-Government hate crime action plan, published in July 2016, focuses on the reduction of hate crime, the increasing of reporting, and ensuring that all criminal justice partners deliver the appropriate outcomes for victims.

I realise that, as a distinguished lawyer, the hon. and learned Gentleman’s speciality is words—preferably a large number of them—rather than numbers.

Like many others in the Chamber, I was very concerned about the spike in the number of racial and religiously aggravated offences after the referendum. Will my hon. and learned Friend please tell the House whether that trend has continued in recent months?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. I think we were all concerned about the spike that clearly occurred after the referendum. The total number of racial and religiously aggravated offences reported in July this year was 41% higher than in the previous year, but I am happy to report that the number of such reported offences has now declined and is at similar levels to before the referendum.

Will my hon. and learned Friend look carefully at the law relating to abusive and offensive online posts? Often when I look at the remarks that are made, particularly when someone has died, I find it quite incredible that newspapers host them, and I think these cowards should have their names and addresses printed along with the offensive posts.

My hon. Friend raises a proper point of increasing concern. I assure him that anonymity—perceived or real—is not an escape route for perpetrators. The use of false online profiles and websites still means that people are traceable, and they can and will be pursued, just like the appalling individual who, only this week, was convicted of offences arising from a racist campaign against the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger).

I am grateful for my hon. and learned Friend’s answer. Can he say more specifically what the Government are doing to tackle hate crime against those with learning disabilities and autism?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an issue that has been of consistent importance to me since my appointment to this office. I am glad to note that there has been a rise of 44% in the number of prosecutions for disability hate crime generally in the last year. When it comes to learning disabilities and autism, I am a strong supporter of local advocacy groups, which will often be the first port of call when a complaint is made by people with an impairment. The evidence shows that where the police work with these groups, more people with a learning difficulty will come forward, and I want to see this good practice spread much further.

But given that on the ground in north Wales the number of prosecutions generally is falling, how can we ensure that public perceptions are reflected in prosecuting policy so that more individuals who commit crime get taken to court and dealt with by magistrates, who tell me that their courts are empty?

I am following the position very carefully in all parts of England and Wales. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are some areas, such as his, where there has not been the rise in prosecutions that we have seen in others. We have to further encourage consistency. The training that has been rolled out in recent months to all the CPS areas needs to bed in. With that approach, I think we will see a rise across the board not just in the prosecution of these offences, but in the confidence of victims to come forward.

Does the Solicitor General agree that prosecution of hate crimes is helped when the victim is supported enough to give evidence, and that more training must be provided by the teams that deal with hate crime UK-wide to ensure that all possible support is afforded to victims and their families?

The hon. Gentleman knows from his experience in Northern Ireland that the Leonard Cheshire Disability organisation has an excellent scheme in place to support victims. This echoes the point that I made earlier about the need for such best practice to be spread to give better support.

I am sure the Solicitor General would agree that regional variations in conviction rates for disability hate crime are unacceptable. Will he set out how such convictions will be dealt with, so that they will not depend on where a person lives?

The hon. Gentleman is right to reiterate the points that have been made. I assure him that the training that is being provided applies to all CPS regions; it is being done on a national basis. That means that in whatever part of the country it is, there should be the same awareness and understanding about the sensitivities that apply to disability hate crime, and of the need to stop looking at people with disabilities through the prism of credibility; rather, we need to look at the person beyond the disability, understanding that their voice has to be heard.

Criminal Corporate Liability

The offence of failing to prevent bribery under the Bribery Act 2010 is holding corporate offenders to account for criminal activity and has incentivised good governance within companies. A new offence of failing to prevent tax evasion is included in the Criminal Finances Bill, which is going through Parliament at the moment, and a call for evidence will be published shortly to explore the options for further reform.

I am grateful for my right hon. and learned Friend’s answer; I know he has had a busy week. I am sure he is aware that there is real concern that our regime has made it much harder to prosecute senior directors of companies that have been involved in very serious wrongdoing. When he gets on to this consultation—perhaps he could say when that will be—will he look at other regimes such as that in the US, to see how they have performed better than we have?

I hope it is no disrespect to my hon. Friend to confirm that he is not the most intimidating tribunal I have addressed this week. He is entirely right that we should look at examples abroad, as well as at domestic practice, to make sure that we are doing all we can to deal with corporate criminal offending. He is right, too, that we must address the issue of whether it is easier to prosecute those in charge of small companies than those in charge of large companies because of the complexity of the latter’s management structures, because that cannot be right.

During the passage of the Criminal Finances Bill, the Government have so far refused to extend corporate economic crime beyond tax evasion. Does the Attorney General agree that companies should only be criminally liable for failure to prevent tax evasion?

The hon. Lady’s question reflects precisely why we are asking for evidence on this subject. We will then conduct a consultation to see whether there is a case to extend the type of “failure to prevent” offences that she describes beyond bribery, where it currently exists, and tax evasion, where it will shortly exist, assuming that Parliament passes the Criminal Finances Bill. There is an argument to say that we should look at this, because, as I say, there are other types of offending where it would be sensible to consider whether a “failure to prevent” offence would be appropriate.

The late Professor Gary Slapper, the well-known commentator and columnist who sadly died at the weekend, was a considerable crusader for informing the law on corporate responsibility. It would be a tribute to his memory if we were to work on that.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we should also look at two other matters? The first is the so-called Magnitsky arrangements for freezing the assets of those involved in corruption. Secondly, in order to enforce that, we must maintain the operational independence of the Serious Fraud Office.

I will attempt to remember them all, Mr Speaker. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is worth looking at his first point. There are many people who believe that there are gaps in the law, but it is also important to make sure that we take full account of concerns that will be expressed about the burdens placed on businesses of all kinds if we get that balance wrong.

On asset freezing and asset seizure, my hon. Friend is right to say that if we are going to successfully prosecute and convict those who are engaged in criminal activity, we must also make sure that we can recover assets where appropriate, so we will look at that in the course of the process in which we are engaged.

Leaving the EU: Human Rights

4. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the protection of human rights in the UK. (907737)

The United Kingdom has a proud tradition of respect for human rights that long predates the European Union and that will continue following our withdrawal from it.

What existing human rights enjoyed by UK citizens under EU directives could not or should not be enshrined in UK law, if or when we leave the European Union?

As I hope I made clear in my first answer, I do not believe that human rights protections in this country are dependent on EU law. We will certainly look, in the course of the great repeal Bill and other measures that this House will have to consider, at how we transfer those obligations currently under EU law into domestic law where the House believes that it is appropriate to do so. I maintain the view that we will continue to protect human rights in this country. Moreover, we will continue to be leading advocates for human rights around the world.

Is it still the Government’s policy to introduce a separate Bill of Rights to enshrine things in British law?

We remain of the view that human rights law requires reform. I think that my hon. Friend and I are in full agreement that, although we have no quarrel with the content of the European convention on human rights, it is the way in which that document is applied that gives us difficulty. The Government are certainly committed to seeking to do something about that. He will have noticed that we have a few other things on our plate at the moment; I think we will have to resolve those before we can resolve the matter to which he refers.

What assurance can the Attorney General give that, once we exit the EU and become once again an emancipated, independent and liberated nation state on the stage of the world, we will maintain the proud heritage and tradition of defending individual rights in this United Kingdom?

I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s confidence. We will certainly do that; we always have and we always will, and we will do it in all parts of the United Kingdom. As he knows, we will make sure that all parts of the United Kingdom are engaged in the process of exiting the European Union.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, when referring to our exit from the European Union, it is important to distinguish between that and the convention, and that the Government’s policy continues to be that we should remain in the European convention and observe human rights as before?

My hon. Friend is entirely right: those two things are distinct. It is our exit from the European Union that the public have confirmed in the referendum outcome and that we will now follow through. Of course, as I said earlier, our commitment to human rights will be maintained not just domestically but abroad.