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Attorney General

Volume 620: debated on Thursday 2 February 2017

The Attorney General was asked—

Crown Prosecution Service: Victim and Witness Support

1. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to support victims and witnesses giving evidence in court. (908564)

4. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to support victims and witnesses giving evidence in court. (908569)

Prosecutors can apply for special measures to allow victims and witnesses to give evidence in court unseen by the defendant. The Government are making available the opportunity for vulnerable witnesses to give pre-recorded evidence without going into a courtroom at all. In addition, recent CPS guidance, now implemented nationwide, makes it clear what prosecutors can do to explain what is likely to happen at court, so that victims and witnesses can better understand the trial process and give the best evidence they can.

I am encouraged by the Attorney General’s words, but half of all cases going through the courts at the moment are connected with sexual abuse, and with police investigating no fewer than 70,000 claims of historic child sex abuse this year alone, that figure is likely to remain high. Given the traumatising impact on historic survivors and children especially of reliving their experiences in the witness box, what additional measures are being taken to make the process less intimidating and ensure that appropriate counselling services are readily available?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that the system does all it can to reduce the effect, particularly on vulnerable witnesses, of giving evidence in these difficult cases. That is why I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has decided to extend what I believe was a successful pilot of pre-recorded cross-examination. It means that vulnerable witnesses, particularly children, can give their evidence outside a courtroom environment and have it all done and dusted before the trial begins, which also means that they are not affected by any delays that the trial may then be subject to. That is hugely important, as is the opportunity for prosecutors to speak to witnesses and explain what is going on, and I am pleased to say that that has resulted in much improved satisfaction rates among witnesses for the support they get from the CPS.

Will the Attorney General join me in thanking the NSPCC and Esther Rantzen for their campaigning work to reduce the intimidating environment in courts for children, and will he confirm how many children give evidence in court?

I will have to write to my hon. Friend with the figure he asks for, but I entirely agree with his comments about the NSPCC. It is worth noting that a variety of organisations assist tremendously in the work of the criminal justice system in making sure that all witnesses can give their best evidence. That is in the interests of the whole system, and it is particularly important when we are dealing with children.

I have only attended one trial—a murder trial—where, in the summing up, the family of the young lady who had been brutally murdered had to listen to an absolutely appalling character assassination. It was totally fraudulent, but they had to sit there and listen to that. Has anything been done to stop that horrible practice?

I understand entirely the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He will recognise that in a criminal trial it is necessary that the defence case is put. That is what we need to see to make sure that the process is fair, but we are doing what we can to ensure that the experience of those who are in court not of their own volition—because they are the victim of an offence or a witness to it—is as easy as it can be, although we accept that it will never be wholly easy.

Will the Minister outline what steps have been taken to address the 2015 report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate, which revealed that some vulnerable people are being let down by the inconsistency of approach to criminal case file management, and will he say how successful those steps have been?

I recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. This was a troubling report in some ways. One of the most troubling aspects is the way in which victims of crime in particular are communicated with by the CPS—the language used and the sensitivity shown. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General and I have been particularly keen to ensure that the CPS takes those lessons on board and acts on them, and I am confident that it is doing so.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are many people within the system, both defendants and witnesses, who have mental health difficulties and it is important that the system is sensitive to that. What we need to do is understand better what the particular needs of each witness may be and then respond to them as best we can. The way to do that is to have the maximum number of tools available and ways in which evidence can be given, whether that is pre-recorded cross-examination, as I have mentioned, or the assistance of others in court who can help those who give evidence.

Will the Attorney General ensure that no witness or defendant can give evidence to a court while wearing a full-face balaclava or the burqa?

What is important is that the court and in particular the jury can assess the evidence that a witness gives, so it is important that that witness is able to give evidence in a clear way, so that a jury can assess whether they think that witness is telling the truth or not. Anything that gets in the way of that, I am sure the court will wish to consider very carefully.

Unduly Lenient Sentences

We committed ourselves in our manifesto to extending the scope of the scheme. As a first step, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced that we would extend it to sentences in the Crown court for terrorism offences, and we are working with her to implement that.

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for confirming that our manifesto commitment is still on track, but I should also be grateful if he was a bit more specific about the dates on which we might be able to make some headway, because these reforms are long overdue.

My hon. Friend is right to press the Government for a commitment to action. Work is being done with the Ministry of Justice, and both the Attorney General and I are committed to ironing out the obvious inconsistencies in the system, which cause understandable frustration among victims and their families.

Over the last 12 months, how often has my hon. and learned Friend been asked to review sentences handed down by the courts?

The number of sentences continues to increase. In 2015 we considered 713 requests, but of 80,000 passed in England and Wales in that year, only just over 100 were varied by the scheme. I think that that represents a vote of confidence in our judges and magistrates.

Hate Crime: Non-UK EU Citizens

3. What assessment he has made of potential trends in the level of prosecutions for hate crime towards non-UK EU citizens once article 50 is triggered. (908567)

The Government are working closely with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and community organisations to monitor any changes in hate crime levels, and we will continue to do so after the triggering of article 50. However, it is not possible to predict prosecution trends, and the data on the nationalities of victims are not disaggregated.

What steps is the CPS taking to improve the conviction rate for hate crimes against disabled people? Does he support the call by the shadow Solicitor General, my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), for parity in the treatment of all protected characteristics in the aggregated offences regime?

The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that rates of disability hate crime prosecution continue to rise. The rise last year was 41.3%, the conviction rate for hate crime being just over 83%. The total number of hate crimes prosecuted last year was 15,442, which is the highest number to date. I do, of course, take very seriously the helpful and sensible submissions made by the shadow Solicitor General.

As we know, in an age of social media it has become all too easy for perpetrators to spread hate and intimidation. The Crown Prosecution Service takes very seriously offences which cross the line to constitute grossly offensive communications, and prosecutions take place regularly. We will continue to work with social media to ensure that the detection of such crimes can be improved.

Legal Costs: Article 50

5. What the cost to the public purse was of fees related to legal proceedings on the triggering of article 50. (908570)

The case that concluded in the Supreme Court last week dealt with an important constitutional issue. It was absolutely right that the Government both defended their position and appealed against the first-instance judgment in England and Wales to the Supreme Court, where the case was heard alongside connected litigation from the Northern Ireland courts. The figures for the total costs of those cases will be published in due course, but I can confirm that the Advocate General for Scotland and I, who appeared on behalf of the Government, received no additional fee for our work on the case.

I thank the Attorney General for his response, although I am not sure that we have got any closer to learning the figure. Given that every serious legal commentator in the land said that the Government’s appeal was doomed to fail, will he please explain to the House why it was so necessary to waste taxpayers’ money on funding the appeal?

I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s premise. Let me point out a number of things to him. First, I think that the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is the right place in which to decide a case of such significance. Secondly, if the Government’s arguments had been as hopeless as the hon. Gentleman suggests, three Supreme Court justices would not have agreed with them. Thirdly, as I have already pointed out, the case was in the Supreme Court partly because judgments in Northern Ireland cases were appealed against to the Supreme Court, not by the Government but by the other parties. The Government responded to those cases, and, incidentally, were successful. Fourthly, the Supreme Court was dealing with arguments presented by the devolved Governments, which had to be dealt with by the Supreme Court. In that instance, the Government were again entirely successful.

Lastly, let me say this to the hon. Gentleman. I think it is a good thing that, in a system governed by the rule of law, a Government are prepared to go to court to argue their case, to make use of appeal mechanisms like any other litigant, and then to abide by the final outcome. That is what has happened, and I think it is a good example of the way in which a rule-of-law system should work.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that when members of the public bring cases on a matter of this importance against the Government in Northern Ireland and in England and Wales and there are conflicting decisions, our Government have no alternative whatsoever but to pursue this matter to the Supreme Court?

I do agree. It is important that the Supreme Court resolved this matter and gave us clarity on what should now happen, and it is now for Parliament to decide what to do next—and I am pleased to see that last night Parliament began to answer the question it had been posed.

When the costs are eventually published, will the Minister ensure that the price that was exacted was for liberty and freedom from the bureaucrats in Brussels, against which it is very difficult to attach any cost?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. This will be an expensive case, but the answer the British people gave should be respected and acted upon, and that, as I say, is now a matter for Parliament—it is no longer a legal matter—and I hope very much that Parliament will answer it clearly.

The Attorney General maybe needs to think again about some of the dubious shorthand that he uses in respect of the devolved cases. The Supreme Court really only made clear judgments in relation to two of the five matters that were referred in relation to Northern Ireland, and on one of them some of its observations are politically telling in ways that the Government are yet to respect.

The other three issues were not determined because they did not need to be, as other aspects of the case were decided as they were. But I am afraid the position is very clear: in relation to the arguments being made, particularly by the devolved Administrations, that there should be the capacity for those Administrations to veto the process of leaving the European Union, the court simply did not agree and rejected those arguments unanimously.

On the subject of the cost to the public purse, I hope, rather than a rerun of all the arguments, which would be very tedious.

I think the whole House would like to know that we got value for money in that judgment, and of course there are lots of rights and obligations in many Acts of Parliament and it is the courts’ job to interpret them. Can the Attorney General explain why the Supreme Court held that the Sewel provisions in an Act of Parliament were not a matter for the courts?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will read the judgment carefully: it says that whereas the Sewel convention might be important politically, it is not a matter for the courts to enforce. That was perfectly properly for the Supreme Court to say. What respect the Sewel convention is given in political terms is of course not a matter for the court. The judgment made that clear.

The operative words are “public purse” and “fees”. Can we stick to that? It would be helpful.

If the Government were genuinely motivated to spend this money by wanting a definitive answer from the courts on a constitutional question, why did they not thank the judges in the divisional court in November for such a clear answer, instead of being in a position where the Justice Secretary had to be pressured into giving a lukewarm defence of them?

No, the Government have always been clear that, at every level, the courts are entitled to consider the cases brought to them and to reach whatever judgment they think appropriate in the light of the arguments they have heard. That was true in relation to the High Court and it is true in relation to the Supreme Court, too. But the hon. Gentleman knows, as an eminent lawyer himself, that the appropriate thing to do if we disagree with the court of first instance is to appeal the judgment. That is exactly what the Government did, doing exactly what any other litigator would do—and, incidentally, exactly what some litigators in this case did in Northern Ireland.

Is it not absolutely remarkable that we have significant numbers of litigants in person in our courts because of the Government’s legal aid cuts, yet when the Government wanted a lawyer, the money was found? Is it not the case in terms of access to justice that there is one rule for the Government and another rule for everybody else?

I am tempted to point out that, as I said earlier, when the Government wanted a lawyer, two out of the three they used in the Supreme Court did not cost the taxpayer anything. I also point out to the hon. Gentleman that when cases like this one are brought—and I make no criticism of those who brought these cases so that these issues could be resolved—it is important that they are resolved through proper and full legal argument. That was done through the High Court and then the Supreme Court. That is the right way to get to the answer the Supreme Court has now given, and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I have made clear very many times that the Government will honour and respect the judgment of the Supreme Court.

War Crime Investigations: Syria and Iraq

6. How the Government collect evidence for use in their investigations into alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Syria and Iraq. (908574)

UK nationals can be prosecuted in our domestic courts for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes that have taken place abroad. My hon. Friend will know that the UK Government are also working with other Governments to explore international legal mechanisms whereby Daesh can be held to account for its crimes.

It appears that no steps are currently being taken by the International Criminal Court to pursue prosecutions for crimes against humanity or genocide in Syria and Iraq, despite a substantial vote in this House advocating such action. Is the UK taking any steps to use its own legal competences to prosecute UK nationals who might be committing such crimes in those countries?

My hon. Friend will know that the UK Government sought to pursue a route whereby the International Criminal Court would consider offences of this type committed in Iraq and Syria, but that our approach was vetoed by the Russians and the Chinese, so there has been no lack of effort on the part of the United Kingdom. In relation to domestic law, we will certainly pursue those offences as and where we can. She will also recognise that the primary practical difficulty is that of obtaining the necessary evidence, and we are working at international level to determine how evidence can be properly collected and retained in theatre so that it can be used for prosecutions when the time comes.