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Attorney General

Volume 628: debated on Thursday 14 September 2017

The Attorney General was asked—

Serious Fraud Office

The Serious Fraud Office does vital work in tackling the most serious instances of fraud, bribery and corruption. We will continue to consider how best to allocate resources and improve joint working between all the enforcement agencies involved in combating economic crime.

Blockbuster funding can make up a significant amount of SFO funding. Does the Attorney General agree that it would be better to have a greater level of permanent funding?

The hon. Lady is right that blockbuster funding forms a significant component of the SFO’s funding. I think that is likely to remain the case because, as she will appreciate, it is difficult for the SFO to predict exactly the number or severity of the cases it will deal with in any given year. However, there is an argument for relooking at how core funding is developed for the SFO, particularly so that it can attract and retain the best quality staff.

The SFO’s reputation has been greatly enhanced under its current director David Green, who is shortly to retire. It is critical that a director of equal quality is appointed to succeed him, so can we put to rest once and for all the suggestion that the independent SFO is likely to be merged into the National Crime Agency? That would be a grossly retrograde step for the efficiency and reputation of our fight against economic crime.

On the importance of good leadership, I belatedly congratulate my hon. Friend on retaining the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General and I look forward to appearing before his Committee again.

On the future of the Serious Fraud Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) is right to recognise the work that David Green and, of course, many others within the organisation have done to improve performance, and I would expect that to continue. I would also expect that, whatever we do, we will hold fast to the crucial requirements that any organisation combating this kind of crime must be effective and independent. Whatever changes are made, my hon. Friend has my assurance that that is what I will require as an end result.

As we leave the European Union, the Labour party is very committed to the highest standards of corporate governance and will never tolerate the UK economy becoming some sort of refuge for dirty money. As a step to achieving that, a future Labour Government will definitely safeguard the future of the Serious Fraud Office. I am making that commitment from the Dispatch Box. Can the Attorney General do the same?

I am glad the shadow Solicitor General recently had the opportunity to visit the Serious Fraud Office, and I am glad that he took up that opportunity. He will have seen the level of commitment within that organisation to combating economic crime. As he has heard me say before, it is about effectiveness and co-operation across the landscape of different organisations that deal with economic crime. It is not about whose name is on the letterhead; it is about how they do the job. We are committed to making sure that, whoever is doing the job of combating economic crime, they are effective, they are properly funded and they have the necessary independence to deliver the results we all want to see.

Yes, I did visit the Serious Fraud Office with my noble friend the shadow Attorney General last week, and we saw the commitment and dedication of its staff. The ongoing uncertainty that has been caused by the Attorney General’s position with regard to the Serious Fraud Office is not helping morale or recruitment. I say again that it would help significantly if, rather than giving the answers from the Dispatch Box that he has given today, he were far more definite about his commitment to the Roskill model and the independence of the Serious Fraud Office.

I am sorry to say that I think the hon. Gentleman, who is usually very assiduous in paying close attention to our proceedings, may not have been listening carefully enough. I have given repeated commitments to the Roskill model, which is clearly demonstrating its success in bringing together prosecutors, investigators, accountants and others to make sure that cases of this complexity are properly addressed. I am a full supporter of the Roskill model, as I have said on many occasions.

Hate Crime

Last month, the CPS took new steps to fulfil one of its commitments in the cross-Government hate crime action plan by publishing revised public statements and legal guidance on all strands of hate crime.

Homophobic and transphobic hate crime prosecutions in the north-east are up by 55% in recent years. Will my hon. and learned Friend join me in welcoming that increase in prosecutions and, crucially, will he inform the House of what he is doing to encourage the spread of best practice in how we continue to bear down on this horrible crime?

On my visit to the north-east CPS, I met representatives of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to discuss the ways in which the regional CPS is engaging with that community. I am glad to say that, on a wider basis, the CPS is developing a training package on these issues with input from the relevant leading organisations in the field.

Alas, we have seen an increase in the use of all types of social media as a vehicle for all types of hate crime. What steps has the CPS taken, is it taking or does it plan to take to deal with all types of online hate crime?

Last month, the CPS published revised guidance committing it to treat online hate crime as seriously as offline offences, taking into account the impact on the wider community when deciding the question of prosecution in the public interest.

Modern Slavery

3. What progress the Crown Prosecution Service has made in improving conviction rates for offences of modern slavery; and if he will make a statement. (900854)

The CPS is dealing with increasing numbers of modern slavery and human trafficking offences, and the number of convictions for those offences in 2015-16 was 48% higher than the year before.

My right hon. and learned Friend will know that in counties such as Staffordshire there is a growing trend of gangmasters exploiting vulnerable people for things such as drug pushing. How can we use the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to try to restrict that? What guidance does he give the courts on this?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which is that modern slavery offences are often found alongside other types of offending, in particular, drug offending. We already have strict penalties available for the drug offending elements of that kind of activity. What the Modern Slavery Act gives the prosecution, and then of course the court, is the opportunity to pursue the modern slavery aspect of this offending, which is hugely important. As I have indicated, we are starting to see an increased volume of those offences going through the courts.

Will the Attorney General join me in congratulating all those involved in the highly successful, high-profile recent prosecution of people involved in modern slavery? Such cases are very expensive to prosecute, so will he assure the House that the required money and resources will be available? This activity is endemic up and down the country, not just in London, and we need the resources for the police to be able to conduct these cases.

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, and there should never be any question but that where this type of offending is prosecuted successfully and convictions are recorded, people receive the appropriate punishment. In the case I suspect he is referring to, where sentences were handed down recently, a clear signal of that has been given. There were 11 defendants, all members of one family, as he knows, and they received a total of 79 years’ imprisonment. That is appropriate for offending of the type involved in that case—it was truly horrendous behaviour.

Which regional office of the CPS is performing best at prosecuting modern slavery and how might its best practice be rolled out to others?

My hon. Friend will be shocked to learn that I do not have that figure at my fingertips, but I will find it out for him. He will understand that these can often be complex investigations and prosecutions, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has just correctly said. There may not be uniformity of experience across the different regions; some regions may not have seen many of these cases, whereas others may have seen a great deal of them. So we will have to be cautious in the comparison he invites me to make, but I will have a look at the figures and see what I can sensibly tell him.

Leaving the EU: UK Legal Systems

4. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the functioning of the different national legal systems in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. (900857)

The Ministry of Justice has had recent contact at ministerial and official level with counterparts in the devolved Administrations; they discussed how we work together on matters relating to Brexit that will affect the different legal systems in the devolved Administrations of Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Government have also engaged with Welsh counterparts to update them on matters affecting justice.

The president of the Law Society of Scotland has said that there needs to be a “whole of governance” approach to the UK withdrawal from the EU that takes into account the devolved Administrations. Does the Solicitor General agree with that statement?

Yes, I do, which is why the Government are taking an approach that will ensure the required continuity and certainty, so that, where necessary, a UK-wide approach will be taken and, where appropriate, there will be devolution to the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments.

Will the Solicitor General take this opportunity to reassure the House and Opposition Members that the leaders of all the devolved Administrations, in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, when we have one there, will be consulted and respected on the broader issues of Brexit, including those relating to his office?

I am happy to give that assurance and that is reflected in the bilateral work of government, where there is continuing dialogue at official and ministerial level. This is all about mutual respect and getting the best outcome, not only for Britain, but for all its constituent parts.

Hate Crime

5. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service has adequate resources to tackle social media hate crime. (900858)

The CPS prosecutes cases where they meet the test for prosecution. It allocates its resources accordingly, and will continue to do so, and I welcome its commitment to treat hate crimes on social media as seriously as other sorts of hate crime.

I am grateful for that response, but will the Solicitor General go further and outline what steps are being taken to address the significant variations in conviction rates across different regions, with particular reference to the 4.7% fall in successful convictions for religiously aggravated hate crime in 2015-16?

The hon. Lady is right to look in detail at regional variations. Overall, progress is still encouraging: the conviction rate for all strands of hate crime increased slightly again last year, and the number of hate-crime prosecutions has now reached record levels—it is in excess of 15,000. The answer to her question lies in the sharing of best practice among different regions. Earlier, I talked about engagement with the trans community in the north-east, and there are examples from other regions of how, if we work closely with the communities, we can increase conviction rates. In the hon. Lady’s area, work with disability communities has resulted in improved disability hate-crime prosecutions.

Earlier this year, the Kantor Centre identified an 11% increase in anti-Semitic abuse in the UK, much of which is driven by online and social media-based abuse. I am sure the whole House would want to condemn anti-Semitic abuse, but we need to do much more to tackle it, to prosecute it and to make it clear how unacceptable it is.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising the appalling crime of anti-Semitism. It is on the rise and it is not acceptable. We all need to speak out together to stamp it out. I am glad to say that the CPS is now encouraging prosecutors to look into the wider community impact, particularly of online hate crime, when they assess whether or not to prosecute. The right hon. Lady is right, and if we tolerate it online, the culture will gradually change and anti-Semitism will become mainstream. We cannot allow that to happen.

Leaving the EU: Hate Crime

6. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the level of prosecutions for hate crime towards EU citizens. (900859)

The Crown Prosecution Service does not disaggregate its data by victims’ nationalities, but it has a strong record in tackling racially and religiously aggravated hate crime. In 2015-16, there were just over 13,000 prosecutions for this type of hate crime. That was 84% of total hate-crime prosecutions, showing a 1.9% increase on the previous year.

I am grateful for that response, but what I really need to know is what steps the Solicitor General will take to reassure my constituents, who tell me of increased hate crime directed at EU citizens. Local organisations that tackle hate crime, such as SARI—Stand Against Racism & Inequality—tell me the same thing. What will he be doing to reassure my constituents that their safety is valued and that the law will protect them?

The hon. Lady is right to say that all parts of our community deserve protection from the law. Only a few weeks ago, I was glad to take part in a hate-crime awareness campaign, which was launched alongside the CPS’s publication of new, revised guidelines, which particularly emphasise the scourge of online hate crime. I assure her residents and, indeed, those in my constituency that when such crimes are perpetrated, no effort will be spared in detecting the perpetrators and dealing with those crimes, because there is a clear public interest in doing so.

In relation to crime, and bearing in mind the Government’s insistence on excluding the EU charter of fundamental rights, does the Solicitor General agree that it is wrong for them to allow what the Law Society of Scotland called

“the potential for the erosion of human rights”,

despite different parts of the UK having voted to remain in the EU?

I do not see an erosion in human rights. The Government are absolutely committed to our membership of the European convention. The charter of fundamental rights does not add anything substantive to UK human rights law, and the underlying principles of EU law will, of course, be brought into our domestic law by virtue of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. The hon. Gentleman can reassure his constituents that the Government are utterly committed to rooting out hate crime wherever it exists.

Domestic Violence

8. What discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on cases involving domestic violence (900861)

9. What discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on cases involving domestic violence. (900863)

I discuss offences connected to domestic abuse with the Director of Public Prosecutions on a regular basis. Such cases are forming a higher percentage of the CPS case load, and prosecutions and convictions in them are at their highest ever level.

Last weekend, I met a woman who had been subjected to horrific domestic abuse by her partner since the age of 13, and it had carried on for many years. She was concerned that the relatively new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour had never been used against that perpetrator and that it may not be being used as much as it should be. Will the Attorney General look at that when he next meets the DPP?

I will certainly do that. I understand the concern that the hon. Lady has expressed. As she knows, this offence is relatively new, and there have therefore been relatively few cases where it has been deployed. There have been convictions, and the more that there are, the more the signal will be sent that this is the kind of behaviour that will result in criminal action, prosecution, conviction and sentencing. I hope that that will increasingly be the case, but of course it cannot act retrospectively. In relation to the future, we are making good progress.

It is apt to say in these questions that our thoughts are with Doreen Lawrence whose son, Stephen Lawrence, would have been 43 yesterday.

An estimated 1.8 million adults aged 16 to 59 were victims of domestic abuse in the year ending March 2016. Will the Attorney General consider whether electronic-only evidence submissions to the CPS is the most effective way of capturing a case and the experience of a victim?

We will always consider ways in which we can capture the evidence from victims, and other witnesses of course, in the most effective way. The hon. Lady will know that some of our recent changes involve the opportunity for particularly vulnerable witnesses to give evidence without being in a courtroom physically and to do so in advance of the rest of the case, so that they can get their part in the case done quickly. We will always look at ways in which we can do that better. It is a crucial part of encouraging people to come forward and report abuse and stick with the purpose and the process of prosecuting those who are responsible.

In Gwent, 1,401 cases of domestic abuse were put forward to the CPS in 2015-16, and charges were brought in 68% of them. The highest rate was in Leicestershire where the CPS pursued 82% of cases. Will the Attorney General please explain why there are such stark regional differences?

The differences are always explained by the merits of the cases themselves, and there will be some variation. I will look at the hon. Gentleman’s particular statistics, but he will recognise that every case is different, every case must be considered on its merits, and the CPS must make the best judgment it can in each of those cases.

The local police in Yeovil report good progress in dealing with domestic violence but would welcome a bit more flexibility from the CPS about the types and amounts of evidence required for prosecution, including evidence gathered by modern methods such as body cameras. Will my right hon. and learned Friend please work with the police and the CPS on those suggestions?

I agree that flexibility is important, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured to know that, with the roll-out of more and more body-worn cameras, we will see this evidence play a greater part in this kind of prosecution. That is welcome, because it means that we can have evidence of what was happening when the police arrived without the need to extract that evidence from complainants who may be reluctant for all sorts of reasons. That is a positive move, and I am sure that we will see more of it in Yeovil and elsewhere.