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Attorney General

Volume 626: debated on Thursday 29 June 2017

The Attorney General was asked—

European Convention on Human Rights

1. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the future status of the UK as a signatory to the European convention on human rights. (900092)

The Government have committed the United Kingdom to remaining a signatory to the European convention on human rights for the duration of the Parliament.

I thank the Attorney General for his answer, and I am reassured by it, but, as he will know, earlier this week the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described the Prime Minister’s comments after the appalling attack on London Bridge as “a gift” to every despot

“who…violates human rights under the pretext of fighting terrorism.”

Will the Attorney General recognise the danger of playing politics with human rights, and accept that the Government need to desist from doing it?

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that I do not accept that that is what is happening. What I think the Prime Minister was saying is something with which I would expect every Member of the House to agree, namely that human rights involve a balance: there is a balance between the human rights of all the different people in our society. Everyone has the most important human right of all, which is to live their life unabated by those who wish to do them harm through terrorism. What the Prime Minister was saying—rightly in my view, and, I hope, in the hon. Gentleman’s—was that we must ensure that that balance continues to be struck correctly, and that is what we will do.

The Court behind the convention has tens of thousands of cases outstanding, and many of the so-called judges have no legal qualifications at all. Do not those two stark facts undermine the credibility of that organisation in upholding human rights at all?

I think my hon. Friend and I would agree that the Court in Strasbourg could sensibly reform and improve, but he will also recognise that we in this country do not rely solely on that Court to protect our human rights. Our Government and our courts do that too, and do it very effectively.

Does the Attorney General not agree that, although the Strasbourg Court may need reform, it has done excellent work over the years in putting forward the case for human rights in central and eastern Europe? The uncertainty of Britain’s position will give succour to regimes such as those of President Putin in Moscow and the President of Belarus, which is not a signal that the British Government should be giving.

I applaud all those who work to promote human rights, whether in a court or elsewhere, but it is important to understand that the European convention on human rights itself permits derogation in certain circumstances. The hon. Gentleman was, I think, a member of a Government who sought to do that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It is certainly within the hierarchy and system of the European Court of Human Rights that that should be allowed, and we need to ensure that the balance I described earlier is maintained.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The right to the peaceful enjoyment of property is a valuable safeguard in the convention. Does the Attorney General agree that the Serious Fraud Office has a strong and growing reputation for upholding that right, and will he clarify his plans for the future?

I certainly think that the Serious Fraud Office has an important role to play in doing what it can to deal with economic crime, as of course do other agencies. As for the future, we are looking carefully at how we can improve performance in tackling economic crime across the whole range of organisations that do that work.

During the election campaign, the Prime Minister said that she was going to rip up human rights in order to fight terrorism. Can the Attorney General confirm that he has advised his Cabinet colleagues that there is nothing in the Human Rights Act 1998 or in the convention on human rights that would prevent the Government from taking a robust approach to terrorism, and that this plan to rip up human rights will be shelved?

No, the Prime Minister said nothing of the kind. Let me read out exactly what she did say, which was that

“we should do even more to restrict the freedom and the movements of terrorist suspects when we have enough evidence to know they present a threat, but not enough evidence to prosecute them in full in court. If our human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change the laws so we can do it.”

That seems eminently sensible, and something we should all agree with.

British Nationals: Foreign Armies and Militias

2. What the Government’s policy is on the prosecution of British nationals who enlist to fight in foreign armies and militias. (900093)

All cases in which offences may have been committed under terrorism legislation are considered on their own merits by experienced specialist prosecutors in the Crown Prosecution Service counter-terrorism division. Prosecutions will go ahead when there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and a prosecution is required in the public interest.

At least 100 British citizens, including my constituent Aiden Aslin, have been to Syria and Iraq to fight with Kurdish peshmerga forces against Daesh. Those individuals who have returned to the UK have found themselves in a state of legal limbo, as neither the CPS nor local police forces seem to be able to reach a judgment on whether the Terrorism Acts should apply to them. Will the Attorney General’s office give greater guidance and support to those police forces? No individual deserves to be left in legal limbo.

I commend my hon. Friend for the persistence with which he has raised the case of his constituent. I know that he understands how difficult this is. Each case is different, and each case must be considered on its own merits by the police and then, in due course, by the CPS. On the question of guidance, he will understand that it is difficult for politicians to set out guidance to apply to each individual case. He will also know, however, that cases in which the effect of terrorism is felt abroad rather than in this country often require my consent, and I will think about whether I could give any specific guidance on what criteria I would take into account when considering the public interest element of such cases.

Many of my constituents would be surprised to learn that anyone who goes to Syria to fight is not tracked or tagged when they get back. Also, is the Attorney General aware of the real concern about how many people slip in and out of this country on borrowed or forged passports?

Yes, I do understand that. The message we must all try to give is that anyone who is attracted to the idea of going to fight in Syria or Iraq must be dissuaded from doing so, partly because of the personal risk that the hon. Gentleman describes but also because the picture is exceptionally complicated, and organisations that appear to be on the side of the angels may not in fact be so. It is important that everyone understands the legal and physical risks that they are running by doing that sort of thing.

Leaving the EU: Human Rights

3. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the protection of human rights in the UK. (900095)

The United Kingdom has a long-standing tradition of ensuring that our rights and liberties are protected domestically and of fulfilling our international human rights obligations. The decision to leave the European Union does not change that.

The repeal Bill White Paper is vague in the details of the human rights protections currently afforded to us all by EU laws and regulations. Will the Attorney General instruct a full independent audit of human rights protections originating from the EU and publish the results?

The hon. Lady will have to wait until the Bill is published, but she will then be able to study it in detail, and the House will be able to discuss it in detail. However, she will appreciate that the principle behind the Bill is that we will transfer European rules and regulations into domestic law wherever it is feasible and sensible to do so. They will become domestic law at that point, and they will be enforced and upheld by our own courts. That is a sensible way of doing it.

Human rights and the scaremongering around them came up time and again on the doorsteps of Eastleigh during the election campaign. Does the Minister agree that it is simply scaremongering and that leaving the EU will not change our human rights?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Leaving will not make a difference to how human rights are defended in this country. It is worth remembering—I am sure she made this point on the doorsteps—that this Government have a good record in the defence of human rights, both domestically and abroad. It was this Government that put forward a modern slavery Bill, which was not just the first in this country, but the first in Europe, and Conservatives in Government promoted the idea of sexual violence in conflict being something that the world must take seriously. We are proud of that record, and we will continue with it.

The Government’s proposals, published this week, on non-UK EU citizens after Brexit suggest that they, and not British citizens, will need documentation to access public services. In other words, that means an identity card for some, but not for everyone. How can that possibly be consistent with the European convention on human rights?

We have to work through the practicalities. It will be important to understand how people demonstrate that they are who they say they are, but I do not accept that that will lead to a system of identity cards. The hon. Gentleman will recall that Conservatives in government got rid of the Labour idea of having identity cards in the first place.

Human rights are defended by the European Union, but they were not invented by the European Union. As my right hon. and learned Friend has already said, this country has a good record in upholding them. Would he be interested to know that still only nine EU countries, including of course the UK, permit gay marriage?

My hon. Friend is always interesting—no less so on this point. He is right. Both sides of the House should accept that human rights are important and must be upheld, but our courts, our judges and our Government are perfectly capable of doing that job, which they have done very well for a long time.

Crown Prosecution Service: Action against Terrorism

Terrorism prosecutions are dealt with by a specialist unit within the CPS, and there is close working between the CPS, the police and the intelligence services from the launch of an investigation until the conclusion of a trial.

While the 400 or so radicalised British Muslims who are still fighting for ISIS in Syria are naive, many of them pose a great danger to the UK. We know their names, so what steps are being taken to prepare for prosecutions?

My hon. Friend is right. We have to pay close attention to each of those individuals. He will understand that prosecutions will not always follow in all those cases, but the number of prosecutions in terrorism cases has increased significantly. There were 79 trials last year, compared with 51 trials the year before, and we are remarkably good at convicting in those trials, which have a conviction rate of something like 86%.

Since 2010, the CPS has lost 2,400 staff—a third of its workforce—and 400 prosecutors. Is the Attorney General confident that he can meet the ever-growing complexity of the terrorism cases that are coming through now?

Yes, I am, and so is the CPS. The resources that it has available to deal with counter-terrorism are increasing and, as I have indicated, the conviction rate in terrorism cases is high. Indeed, the conviction rate across all offences has remained remarkably stable over the period that the right hon. Gentleman describes.

Public Disasters: Independent Advocate

5. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the role of an independent advocate to act for families after a public disaster. (900097)

8. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of appointing an independent advocate to act for families after a public disaster. (900100)

It is of paramount importance that bereaved families and injured people are properly involved and supported following a disaster, which is why we announced in the Queen’s Speech that we will establish an independent public advocate to ensure that involvement and provide that support.

Will the independent advocate be able to act for those affected by the contaminated blood scandal? What exactly does the idea of “assistance” and “support” mean? Does it mean a publicly funded lawyer for each family affected?

I thank the hon. Lady for that point. This of course depends very much on how quickly we as a Parliament can pass the necessary legislation. It is certainly the Government’s intention that the independent advocate gets on with their work as quickly as possible. On the specific point, each case will depends upon its merits. Of course, legal aid is already available for families with regard to certain procedures, but I think the benefit of having a consolidated advocate will be to address the very questions she asks. I look forward to these issues being debated carefully when the necessary legislation is introduced.

Will the Solicitor General confirm that if families who live in high rises, but who, thankfully, have not suffered the same disaster that Grenfell Tower has, wish to bring any legal action on health and safety grounds, they will be entitled to legal aid?

Again, the hon. Lady asks a general question about the merits of particular cases. If indeed there are grounds—for example, a judicial review procedure might be appropriate in particular cases—that application can be made. The important point in the context of this question is whether we can do more for families and bereaved relatives. I think we can, and the precedent set by the horrific events at Grenfell will allow us all to learn important lessons: that families have to be put first.

Can the Solicitor General help us on the practicalities? What discussions has he had with the Bar Council and the Law Society as to how an independent advocate or advocates might be identified; what levels of remuneration will be available, so as to ensure that there is proper equality of arms in representation; and by what means families will be able to give proper and fully discreet instructions?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is vital that we get these details right as we develop the policy. It is clear, certainly to the Government, that having quality advocacy so that the right documents are obtained and a proper challenge is made at all stages of the process is important, and it is what we seek to achieve. Therefore, fulfilling article 6 has to be at the heart of this.

What assessment has the Solicitor General made of the efficacy of having an independent advocate after a tragedy such as Grenfell in trying to get to justice and truth for the victims, when this is coupled with the rather unhelpful remarks of the shadow Chancellor, which seem to be clouding the whole issue?

It is vital at solemn and serious times like this that we all exercise our right to free speech responsibly, and that we are mindful that criminal investigations are ongoing, as well as concurrent inquests and, of course, the public inquiry. All of us have to make sure that we pass that very high test, and I am afraid that the shadow Chancellor failed that in his remarks this week.

I am sure the Solicitor General would agree that it is vital that the independent public advocate has the powers needed to carry out the role. I pay great tribute to the work of the Hillsborough families over many years, but he will be aware that key to that were the findings of an independent panel in overturning the first inquest verdict. Will the independent public advocate have the powers to appoint an independent panel if they see fit to do so?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very germane point, and we all need to bear the Hillsborough precedent very much in mind. I am keen, and the Government are keen, to ensure that the independent advocate has as powerful and as meaningful a role as possible. Each case will depend on its merits, but I am certainly prepared to look at all details, including the one he raises.

Does the Solicitor General also agree that it is crucial that there is full public confidence in the role of the independent public advocate? As such, the role should be subject to appropriate scrutiny. Will he also promise that the independent public advocate will place reports before this House on an annual basis, so that Members can look carefully at the work in detail?

Like many other appointments of this kind, I can envisage the sort of accountability that the hon. Gentleman mentions. The publication of annual reports is a regular and common occurrence. Again, it is a particular point that we will consider very carefully indeed.

Hate Crime: Aggravated Offences Regime

6. What assessment he has made of the effect of the aggravated offences regime on the level of successful prosecutions for hate crime. (900098)

7. What assessment he has made of the effect of the aggravated offences regime on the level of successful prosecutions for hate crime. (900099)

9. What assessment he has made of the effect of the aggravated offences regime on the level of successful prosecutions for hate crime. (900102)

The Crown Prosecution Service has taken a number of steps to improve its prosecution of all strands of this type of crime, including the aggravated offences, and that includes the delivery of vital face-to-face training. Its hard work in this area has resulted in significant increases in the use of sentencing uplifts in all strands of hate crime.

In 2014, the Law Commission proposed that disability hate crime should be given parity with other hate crimes in relation to aggravated offences and to so-called stirring-up offences. In November 2016 in a debate in Westminster Hall, the Solicitor General said that the Government were reviewing that report. Will he update the House on when the Government will make a decision, as it is of great importance to disabled people?

The hon. Lady knows that I have had a long-standing interest in disability hate crime. The Government are particularly interested in the strand of work conducted by the previous Home Affairs Committee. We are looking to its successor Committee to carry on that work. We want this House to play its part in the response to the Law Commission recommendations, and we very much hope that, as soon as possible, we can craft a suitable response to get the law right.

As has been stated, the Law Commission has previously called on the Government to review hate crime legislation. Will the Government bring forward proposals for the review to ensure that the legislation is effective and sufficiently broad in scope?

The hon. Gentleman is right to press the Government on those issues. My concerns are twofold: first, we need to get the existing law properly used and enforced by way of training and the actual use of it by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service; and, secondly, we need to get the response to the Law Commission recommendations right. I want to ensure that this House passes laws that are properly enforced. Too often in the past, we have been too quick to pass laws that have then failed the expectations of those who deserve protection. He is right that we will be looking at that as soon as possible.

Reports of hate crime rose by 57% following Brexit. CPS staffing budgets have more than halved since 2010. Is the Attorney General therefore confident that the CPS is adequately resourced to deal effectively with these reports and ensure that victims of hate crime do indeed get justice?

I can reassure the hon. Lady that the trends in relation to the prosecution of hate crime continue to increase, particularly with regard to racially and religiously aggravated hate crimes. The increase in the past year was 1.9%, which means that more than 13,000 cases are now being prosecuted. That is reflected across the piece when it comes to homophobic crime and disability hate crime. There is no bar at all to the CPS’s pursuing these cases and marking society’s condemnation of this sort of criminal activity.

Will my hon. and learned Friend tell the House what action the Government are taking to prevent the spread of hate crime via social media?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. May I reiterate that the law shows no distinction whatsoever between hate crimes that are committed offline and those that are committed online? Just because somebody hides behind a pseudonym and pursues hate online does not mean that the police and the CPS will not track them down and prosecute them, as we have seen notably in cases involving several Members of this House, who have been the victims of appalling hate crime.

Unless I misheard him, the hon. Gentleman chuntered from a sedentary position that Twitter was against his hair—[Interruption.] And that that constitutes some sort of hate crime. I make that point for those who are interested and listening to our proceedings. Anyway, we are always interested in all matters appertaining to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant).

I am not quite sure how to follow that. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in recognising the great work that is done by Tell MAMA and Hope not Hate, who build the confidence in those who suffer hate crime to report it?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Tell MAMA and other organisations play an important part by working closely with the CPS and police to inform the process and help people to report crime. Often people will go to a third party before coming to the police, but that is an acceptable way to report crime because it means that more crimes can be prosecuted.

Order. We have run late. I want to accommodate the Member with the last question on the Order Paper, but no other.

Burglary: Sentencing

10. What recent assessment he has made of the extent to which sentencing of people convicted of burglary has been unduly lenient. (900103)

Last year the Attorney General and I referred 11 cases for burglary as unduly lenient and achieved an increase in sentence in seven of those. Only the most serious types of burglary offence currently fall within the unduly lenient scheme, but we have recommitted in our manifesto to extend its scope and we will work with my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor to implement that commitment.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer and for the welcome news. Only 10% of first-time burglars receive immediate custodial sentences. Does that not encourage them to carry on their crimes? Burglary is quite a serious crime; will he have a look at that statistic?

My hon. Friend is right to say that burglary is a serious crime. It is a crime against the person, not just against property, because it affects people’s wellbeing. I am glad to tell him that since the introduction of the revised Sentencing Council guidelines on burglary in 2012, the overall level of sentencing for burglary, in terms of prison and length of sentence, has increased. That should give his constituents some encouragement that the courts are handing out the appropriate punishment for this serious crime.

Order. Before we come to business questions, it might be helpful to the House if I announce my selection of amendments to be potentially voted on much later today. I have selected the amendment tabled by the official Opposition—amendment (l), if memory serves, in the name of the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell).

As colleagues will be intimately conscious, being fully familiar with all these matters, I have a right to select up to two further amendments under the terms of our Standing Orders. I can advise the House that I have selected amendment (d) in the name of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and others, and amendment (g) in the name of the hon. Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) and others. I hope that that is helpful to the House.