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Attorney General

Volume 623: debated on Thursday 16 March 2017

The Attorney General was asked—

Great Repeal Bill

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on the requirement for legislative consent motions for the proposed great repeal Bill. (909271)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues, including with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, on various issues of importance to the Government. The Government will publish the great repeal Bill in due course, and the content of the Bill will determine the process to take it forward.

Last month, the Secretary of State for Scotland confirmed that a legislative consent motion would be required from the Scottish Parliament for the great repeal Bill, but in his answer just now the Attorney General stopped well short of that. If the UK Government’s position is the same as the Secretary of State for Scotland’s, will a legislative consent motion be required?

The hon. Lady tempts me to explore what will be in the great repeal Bill. I am not going to do that, but she knows, and I am sure her colleagues know, that if the Bill affects the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament or the executive competence of the Scottish Government, there will need to be a legislative consent motion.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my concern that people might be slightly misled by our referring to the proposed Bill as the great repeal Bill? Although it will repeal the European Communities Act 1972, it is actually the great continuity Bill, because its other purpose is to transfer the body of EU law into UK law.

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. He is right to say that this Bill will repeal the 1972 Act, and that is a significant step in this country’s history, but it will also, as he says, make sure that we do not have huge amounts of disruptive change for business, industry and individuals, and we will try to make sure that there is as much continuity on the day after departure as there was on the day before departure, where that is feasible.

Does the Attorney General envisage that there will be consent motions under EVEL provisions in respect of any of the potential clauses in the great repeal Bill?

Again, we shall have to wait and see the content of the Bill, but it is unlikely—given what is likely to be in the Bill, and given the purpose of the Bill—that we will be looking at very many areas, if any at all, that do not affect the entire United Kingdom.

Can the Attorney General clarify whether any of the devolved Administrations effectively have a legal veto over our decision to leave the European Union?

I must admit to being confused by the Attorney General’s answers. Clearly, the great repeal Bill, as indicated by the Supreme Court, will affect devolved competences. The Secretary of State for Scotland has said an LCM is required. Why are the Government hesitant? Can the Attorney General not be clear? Will an LCM be required for the great repeal Bill, because it affects devolved competences?

The Supreme Court was not deciding on this Bill; it was deciding on a Bill that the Government have now passed, and which I hope will receive Royal Assent very shortly. However, in relation to the contents of this Bill, whatever it ends up being called, the hon. Gentleman will have to be patient and wait until we see it. As I set out to his colleagues, there is a clear set of expectations as to when LCMs will be required, and the Government will honour those expectations.

Economic Crime

2. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service has adequate resources to tackle serious fraud and other economic crimes. (909272)

The Crown Prosecution Service anticipated increases in complex cases such as fraud ahead of the last spending review, and there was indeed a 14% increase in fraud and forgery cases last year, but, importantly, the conviction rate stayed stable at 86%.

With a third of the workforce cut since 2010—400 prosecutors and 1,000 administrators and caseworkers—does the Solicitor General really consider that the CPS is able to deal with these complex fraud and economic cases, and will not any further cuts leave it in a really bad state to prosecute?

I assure the hon. Lady that the allocation of resources for the prosecution of fraud has increased within the CPS. There are now over 200 specialist fraud prosecutors, not just here in London but across the country in important regional centres, and that number is set to increase to 250 in the months ahead, so the CPS is really placing an important priority on this.

Does the Solicitor General agree that the work of the Crown Prosecution Service in this area is very much complemented in cases of really serious economic fraud by the work of the Serious Fraud Office, which has been transformed under the leadership of David Green, resulting in the recovery of over £500 million of ill-gotten gains? Does he agree that the model of the Serious Fraud Office does this country great credit and will be of increasing value to us in future?

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Justice Committee. He is right to highlight the recent successes of the SFO in collecting millions of pounds for the taxpayer as a result of deferred prosecution agreements. I think the Roskill model, which brings together investigators and prosecutors in one unit, works very well.

Picking up on the point made by the Chairman of the Select Committee, does not the existence of the Serious Fraud Office reduce pressure on the Crown Prosecution Service in terms of prosecuting big-ticket economic crime? Will the Solicitor General therefore guarantee that the Serious Fraud Office will continue to exist as it is and will not be merged with the Crown Prosecution Service or the National Crime Agency?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the Government are at all times under a duty to review the mechanism by which we tackle economic crime, because it is a question not just of criminality but of national security. The Government are therefore right to examine the situation. As I said, I think the Roskill model works extremely well.

I did not detect a guarantee in that answer. A month ago, the Solicitor General praised the work of the director of the Serious Fraud Office and how he had enhanced the role of the Serious Fraud Office in our national life. I know that the hon. and learned Gentleman has fine persuasive skills, so if he will not give a guarantee, will he at least undertake to go to see the Prime Minister to speak about the advantages of the Serious Fraud Office and having investigatory and prosecuting services under one roof?

I am happy to indicate to the hon. Gentleman that I have regular conversations with ministerial colleagues about all these issues. I praise David Green for the work he has done in leading the SFO. I will continue to make the case for the Roskill model.

I suspect that those who have the necessary financial expertise to investigate, uncover, prosecute and prove complex financial fraud will probably get paid a lot more in the private sector working for business or the City. What can the Solicitor General do to ensure that the right people with the right skills are retained by the CPS and the SFO?

My hon. Friend knows that the SFO operates a model of funding that means it can be quite flexible as regards particular investigations. The important point is that we get the right people with the right specific expertise in particular types of serious fraud. Flexibility is the most important principle.

Everybody knows that there is a lot of hot money in the London high-end residential market, especially coming from Russia, and there are extensive reporting regulations on financial advisers and agents, so why have there been so few prosecutions for money laundering in this area?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern about this. He will be glad to know that the provisions in the Criminal Finances Bill, which I hope will become law very soon, will enhance the powers of prosecutors and investigators in going after ill-gotten gains with new measures such as unexplained wealth orders, which will help us to deal with the perpetrators of this type of fraud.

Domestic Violence

3. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in prosecuting cases of domestic violence. (909273)

9. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in prosecuting cases of domestic violence. (909281)

The Prime Minister has recently restated her personal, and the Government’s collective, commitment to tackling domestic violence and abuse. My colleagues in Cabinet and I will work together to take that forward. That work will include considering how we can support the CPS in bringing prosecutions against perpetrators of domestic violence.

Ashiana, which is a great Sheffield charity working on domestic violence in the black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee communities, has raised its concerns with me over the appallingly low prosecution rates for female genital mutilation and honour-based violence. The Attorney General will know that there have been no successful prosecutions for FGM. I am sure he shares my concern about that, but what is he going to do about it?

I do share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about that. He may be aware that there are often considerable evidential difficulties in proving these offences in court, but that does not mean that we should not bring appropriate cases before criminal courts and seek to gain convictions. The Crown Prosecution Service will continue to do that. In relation to domestic violence more broadly, he may know that the volume and conviction rate of prosecutions are rising, on the basis of the last year for which we have figures compared with the year before, but he is right to point out specific areas where we need to do better.

Survivors of domestic abuse in my constituency in the excellent Safe Spots group tell me that right out of the gate, they cannot access the criminal justice system because they have to pay a discretionary fee to their doctor for a note to access legal aid, which can cost up to £175. Will the Attorney General consider talking to his Department of Health colleagues about whether we can scrap this fee for those people?

I will certainly explore the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. I think he is indicating that there are a number of different things that we need to do to support those who are victims of domestic violence. This is not solely a criminal justice issue, but if people are to access the criminal justice system, we need to do as much as we can to make the process as easy it possibly can be for them. If victims of domestic violence are unwilling to give evidence, that should not necessarily be the end of a prosecution. We have seen recently with the use of body-worn video cameras that the police can sometimes give evidence that can secure a conviction, even if the victim is not prepared to give evidence.

Will the Attorney General work with the Justice Secretary to ensure that changes to the law on domestic abusers cross-examining their victims are fit for purpose, and that they adequately protect victims in our family courts?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. He will know that in a criminal context, courts already have the authority to stop alleged domestic violence perpetrators cross-examining their alleged victims directly. Family courts need to have such a power, too. He will know, I am sure, that the Government intend to make sure that they do have that power, and I understand that that will form part of a Bill that will come before the House very shortly.

Violence Against Women and Girls

4. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase the number of prosecutions for violence against women and girls. (909274)

5. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase the number of prosecutions for violence against women and girls. (909276)

The CPS is prosecuting and convicting more defendants of domestic abuse, rape, sexual offences and child sexual abuse than ever before. Under the cross-Government violence against women and girls strategy, the CPS has committed to a number of actions between now and 2020 to ensure the effective prosecution of these offences.

What is the CPS doing in the Derbyshire area to ensure that more perpetrators of violence against women and girls are brought to justice?

I know that my hon. Friend has a great interest in and concern about these serious matters. I am happy to tell her that in the last year, 1,805 cases were charged by the CPS—a rise to 70.6% compared with the figure for the previous year—and 1,867 cases resulted in a conviction. The conviction rate in Derbyshire is running at 4.4% higher than the national average.

In Cambridgeshire in 2015-16 there was an increase in the number of convictions for violence against women and girls to 1,031. What is being done to use technology to improve the gathering of evidence for these crimes?

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General has just mentioned, the CPS and the police are embracing the use of technology. The use of body-worn cameras, which is being rolled out across the country, will transform conviction rates and the number of guilty pleas when the evidence is clear and overwhelming in these cases.

Much of the violence against women and children is caused by human traffickers. Does the Solicitor General welcome the announcement today of an investment of £6 million by the Home Secretary in fighting modern-day slavery? We are really leading Europe on this issue.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to link modern-day slavery with violence against women and girls. He knows from his leadership on this issue that if there is a co-ordinated approach to these problems, victims can be identified and perpetrators can be brought to justice. This is yet another welcome milestone along the road in our world leadership on these issues.

Article 50

6. What the legal and administrative costs incurred by the Government were of the Supreme Court appeal on article 50. (909277)

The article 50 litigation concerned an important constitutional issue that it was right for the Supreme Court to consider. The Court considered both the Government’s appeal in England and Wales proceedings and five devolution questions referred by the courts in Northern Ireland after a judgment favourable to the Government. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has committed to publishing the total cost figures in due course.

The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU has praised the article 50 debate as among the best he has heard in the Chamber. Will the Attorney General attest whether the cost to the public purse of preventing this House from having a meaningful and democratic debate was well spent or a waste of public money?

It is not a waste of public money to explore an issue of this constitutional significance in the highest court in the land, and that is what happened. Of course, if the hon. Lady were right that this was a complete waste of money, three Supreme Court Justices would not have found in favour of the Government’s arguments. She will also be aware—I must gently point this out to her—that some of the money spent by the Government was spent on responding to arguments made by the Scottish Government that were rejected unanimously by the Supreme Court.

I think that just proves that you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t with the Scottish National party. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, ultimately, we cannot put a cost on defending democratic principles such as this?

My hon. Friend is right. Again, I think there is merit in ensuring that the highest court in the land has the chance to consider a very significant set of constitutional questions. It has done that and produced its judgment. The Government have complied with that judgment, and the House of Commons and the House of Lords have passed a Bill accordingly.

Criminal Corporate Liability

The Bribery Act 2010 “failure to prevent” offence is holding corporate offenders to account for criminal activity. We are introducing a new offence of failing to prevent tax evasion in the Criminal Finances Bill. Building on this, the Government have published a call for evidence to explore the options for further reform, including extending the “failure to prevent” offence.

Will my hon. and learned Friend look very carefully at the way in which Uber operates? In the past year, it paid £411,000 in tax. I have been inundated with complaints from traditional taxi drivers about the seemingly unfair, unscrupulous and unregulated way in which Uber deploys its drivers.

I listened with concern to my hon. Friend’s question. As I have said, there will be a new corporate offence of failing to prevent tax evasion. If there is evidence of criminality, I urge my hon. Friend and others to report such matters to the police.

Hare Coursing

8. What discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on rates of prosecution for hare coursing. (909279)

I have regular meetings with the Director of Public Prosecutions at which a variety of issues are discussed. The CPS takes the prosecution of hare coursing very seriously. I understand that the chief Crown prosecutor for the east midlands has recently had a meeting with the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable of Lincolnshire at which this issue was discussed.

Not only is hare coursing cruel to the hare, but it causes economic damage and is causing increasing fear in our rural communities. What is the CPS doing to ensure that prosecutions for hare coursing are successful, and to help to put a stop to this crime?

I know that my hon. Friend, who represents a rural constituency, is dealing with this issue and working with local farmers and others to try to combat it. Each Crown Prosecution Service area has a wildlife co-ordinator so that the knowledge needed to prosecute these offences is readily available. The CPS works closely with the police and other wildlife communities to tackle this serious scourge.

Imminent Threats

10. What the Government’s policy is on which factors to take into account when deciding whether responding to an imminent threat is permitted under international law. (909282)

It is the long-standing position of successive UK Governments that a state may use force in self-defence not only in response to armed attacks but to prevent an armed attack that is imminent. In each exercise of the use of force in self-defence, the UK asks itself questions such as: how certain is it that an attack will come; how soon do we believe an attack could be; what could be the scale of the attack; could this be our last opportunity to take action; and is there anything else we could credibly do to prevent that attack?

I thank the Attorney General for that answer. Does he agree with me that there is an important difference between the threats we face now and the threats that have not materialised but that may develop later?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and there is a significant difference between those two things. What I have sought to make clear is that the UK Government are saying they have authority under the law to respond to threats that have emerged, not to threats that may yet emerge in the future but have not yet done so.