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House of Commons Hansard
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16 November 2017
Volume 631

The Attorney General was asked—

Terrorism Offences: Prosecution

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1. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to improve the prosecution of terrorism offences. [901865]

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4. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to improve the prosecution of terrorism offences. [901869]

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The last financial year saw the highest number of terrorism-related arrests in any year since data collection began, and a 55% increase in trials from the previous year. The conviction rate in terrorism prosecutions remained at 86%. The team of specialist prosecutors within the Crown Prosecution Service counter-terrorism division has doubled in size and their skills have been enhanced through training and sharing best practice with partners.

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Disclosure to the defence in terrorism trials, as in any other trials, of material that might be of assistance to the defence or that might undermine the prosecution is the touchstone of a fair trial. Yet, notwithstanding my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General’s guidelines, there are concerns about the inconsistent application of those requirements. What more can be done to ensure that this vital task is properly discharged?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has considerable experience in prosecuting cases. He is right that disclosure is a huge challenge, and becoming an ever greater one, because of the volume of material that arises, particularly in terrorism cases. We need to make sure we understand fully how we deal with a large quantity particularly of electronic material and sift it effectively. Then we need to make sure that all those involved in the disclosure process—both police officers and prosecutors—understand their responsibilities fully.

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What measures are in place to prosecute those linked to the war in Syria?

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This is a matter of considerable public concern. He will know that many of the offences related to what is happening in Syria are offences of preparing to commit acts of terrorism. Over the 10 years from 2006 to 2016, 90 offenders were charged with these offences, 81 of whom received immediate custodial sentences at an average of eight years and five months’ imprisonment.

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Bearing in mind that there was a 30% drop between June 2016 and June 2017 in convictions for terrorism-related offences, will the Minister outline how he has instructed the CPS to improve the conviction-arrest ratio?

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Across the United Kingdom, the volume of cases and convictions is going up all the time. It is important that we recognise that the volume of cases reflects a genuine problem—a problem not just of terrorist acts, but of those who encourage or glorify terrorism. We must make sure the law keeps pace with that in terms of substantive offences and the sentencing regime.

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Following on from that answer, has the Attorney General seen the content published online yesterday by the Leave.EU campaign, in which a number of his hon. and right hon. colleagues were denounced as traitors and as a cancer, simply because they disagreed with the views held by the billionaire owner of that company? Will the Government consider amending legislation so that such clear incitements to hatred can be prosecuted through the criminal courts?

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I agree that incitement to hatred is reprehensible, from wherever it comes and whatever subject it is based on, and it is important that the criminal law is available to deal with that conduct. The hon. Gentleman is right too—he has heard me say this before—that conduct online should be treated no less seriously than conduct offline. No one should imagine that they are immune from the criminal law if what they are doing is online instead of in what we might call the real world.

Leaving the EU: Prosecution of Criminals

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2. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that leaving the EU does not limit the UK’s ability to prosecute criminals. [901866]

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The Prime Minister has made it clear that the United Kingdom is committed to maintaining both the UK’s and Europe’s security now and after our withdrawal from the EU. We believe that the UK and the EU should work together to design new, dynamic arrangements as part of our future partnership, that would allow us to continue and to strengthen our close collaboration on security, law enforcement and criminal justice.

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Next year, London will host the Commonwealth summit, which is a real chance to build on what the Minister has just said—that commitment across different countries to build up capacity to prosecute criminals. Can the Attorney General assure the House that every effort will be made to build the widest possible coalition to tackle crime, which knows no borders?

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Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance, and he is absolutely right that such offences are best dealt with transnationally, because they are committed transnationally. He will recognise that outside the European Union we have a number of different relationships with many other countries to enable us to do law enforcement more effectively and of course bring prosecutions more effectively too.

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The Justice Committee, in its report in the previous Parliament on the legal implications of Brexit, referred to a number of practical measures that need to be taken to maintain criminal justice co-operation. Can the Attorney General help us on what progress has been made on those, and in particular what steps are being taken to ensure that we have continuing data regulation alignment after we leave?

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Yes. My hon. Friend is right that data is crucial to this, and he will recognise that two things need to be done simultaneously. We need to aspire to the closest possible co-operation in law enforcement and security with our European friends after our departure from the EU. We also, of course, need to prepare for what I think is the unlikely possibility that we will not have an ongoing relationship, and there may be a need to fall back on other things. But as I say, I think that is an unlikely possibility, and I think it is very important that we have the closest possible co-operation, which of course is in the interests not just of the UK but of the EU.

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It is vital that we maintain the advantages of our current prosecution toolbox when we leave the EU.

May I press the Attorney General on the allegations that exist of widespread international money laundering against the President of South Africa and the Gupta family, which is stripping money from South Africa and leaving that country as a captured state? Can the Attorney General assure me that our exit from the European Union will not hamper any investigation into those matters?

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As I said to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), we should all recognise that crimes like money laundering do not stop at national borders and therefore they cannot be combated solely by one nation state, and they are not being. Our co-operation with other countries will continue, and I hope be enhanced, because I believe this kind of transnational offending is likely to increase, not decrease. The hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) would not expect me to comment on ongoing investigations in specific cases, but I can assure him that when it comes to money laundering, as with other types of offending, that transnational co-operation will continue.

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I am grateful for that answer. Of course, I would not expect specific points on a specific case, but is the Attorney General aware that there are now further allegations against the Gupta family about a financial kickback from China South Rail that originates from the South African state enterprise Transnet? Can he assure me that if necessary the National Crime Agency, the Serious Fraud Office and the Financial Conduct Authority will undertake appropriate investigation of this matter?

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Yes. As the hon. Gentleman will readily recognise, one of the challenges in cases like this is to determine the appropriate jurisdiction, because many other law enforcement agencies in many other countries may well have an interest, but we do try and do that, and we are generally successful in reaching what I think are sensible settlements on who does what. He can rest assured that under this Government, offending of the type he has described will be properly pursued, wherever it takes place and whoever is responsible.

Sentencing

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3. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. [901867]

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11. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. [901876]

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The number of sentences considered by the Attorney General and me has more than doubled since 2010, from 342 to 837 requests last year. We took 190 of those cases to the Court of Appeal in 2016, and the Court agreed to increase the sentences of 141 offenders.

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Controlling behaviour is mentioned in my constituency surgeries and the new law in this area is welcomed. Constituents have also welcomed the Court of Appeal’s increase of the sentence imposed on an offender engaged in serious incidents of violence and controlling behaviour against his partner. The offender is now spending an extra three years in prison, following the Attorney General’s referral of the case through the unduly lenient sentence scheme. Will my hon. and learned Friend please outline what steps he is continuing to take to increase public awareness of the unduly lenient sentence scheme?

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Indeed. We use every type of media, including social media, to raise awareness. We also use local radio interviews and I personally conduct a number of cases in the Court of Appeal on behalf of the Government. The results show an increase in the number of referrals.

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A number of my constituents are concerned at what they see as unduly lenient sentences handed down to some people who have been convicted of causing death by dangerous driving. Will my hon. and learned Friend confirm how many such sentences have been reviewed and increased?

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The offences of causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving under the influence of drink and drugs are in the regime, and since the beginning of 2015 eight cases of that nature have been referred to the Court of Appeal, five sentences have been increased and one is currently pending, even today.

Pro Bono Work

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5. What steps he has taken to encourage pro bono work in the last 12 months. [901870]

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As pro bono champions in the Government, the Attorney General and I chair the pro bono panel and committee to bring together the most important players to steer and co-ordinate the overall work. As Members will be aware, last week was the 16th national pro bono week, and the Attorney General and I attended and supported events up and down the country to encourage and support the excellent work being done.

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I am sure that, like me, many colleagues receive requests from constituents who are not wealthy and come to our offices with complex legal issues, although our offices are not capable of dealing with them. How can we ensure that people in desperate need get help, either through legal aid or a much enhanced pro bono scheme?

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I am sure that my hon. Friend and many other colleagues will use the services of the Bar pro bono scheme and, indeed, the LawWorks scheme, which can assist in individual cases. The Government are reviewing the operation of the legal aid regime, and we are going to work with expert advisory panels to find the most effective ways to provide that essential early advice and support for people in need.

Rape and Sexual Offences: Prosecutions

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6. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on ensuring more effective prosecutions of cases involving rape and other sexual offences. [901871]

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I have frequent discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions on a range of issues, including cases of rape and other sexual offences. May I take this opportunity to update the House on one aspect of trials of this kind of offending?

Earlier this year, the then Justice Secretary and I asked the Crown Prosecution Service to review a sample of case files to ascertain the frequency of applications to introduce evidence relating to the previous sexual history of a complainant, under section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. Section 41 provides for a presumption against the inclusion of evidence based on previous sexual history, but allows that evidence to be heard only in restricted circumstances. I am grateful to the Director of Public Prosecutions for her findings, which show that in only 13% of the cases looked at was an application under section 41 made, and that in just 8% of those cases was an application granted by the judge. That indicates that the overwhelming majority of rape cases see no evidence submitted of a complainant’s previous sexual history, but the Government are looking carefully at the detailed findings to assess the operation of the law in practice, and we will set out our conclusions shortly.

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I welcome the Attorney General’s comments, but does he accept that low conviction rates for rape and sexual offences can deter victims from reporting those incidents to the police—an issue that was recently brought to my attention by a constituent? If so, will he work with the Director of Public Prosecutions to improve confidence in our ability to prosecute such cases and ensure that victims are able to come forward?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and the answer to her last question is certainly yes—that is what we are doing. She is right: there are a number of factors that might deter those who should come forward to report crimes of this nature from doing so, and of course deter them from pursuing those cases throughout trial. We must not only do what we can to ensure that conviction rates are where they should be, but make sure that complainants are properly supported throughout the case. We do that through independent sexual violence advisers and special measures. She will know that, in relation to vulnerable witnesses in particular, we are beginning to roll out pre-recorded cross-examination so that people can give their evidence outside a courtroom and get it done before the trial begins. All those things will help, but there is more to do.

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The Attorney General has just touched on this, but does he agree that it will help more vulnerable people to come forward if they feel that they can have a pre-trial cross-examination?

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I agree with my hon. Friend. That is important for two reasons. First, as I have indicated, for those people it means that their part in the case can be over before the rest of the trial takes place, meaning that they are not subject to any delays from which the case may suffer. Secondly, they are of course giving evidence outside the courtroom, without having to confront the defendant in the case. It is of huge benefit and, as I have said, I look forward to its further roll-out.

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In his capacity as ex officio Advocate General for Northern Ireland, what advice has the Attorney General given to his colleagues in government about the implications of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 on cases of rape in Northern Ireland, with particular reference to the non-consensual sex exemption form?

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As the hon. Lady may anticipate, I obviously do not discuss the advice that I have given within government. However, she can take it for granted that in relation to Northern Ireland, as in relation to all other parts of the United Kingdom, we take these offences extremely seriously, and we wish them to be prosecuted effectively.

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I call Hannah Bardell.

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Question 7, Mr Speaker.

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With permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer this question along with Questions 8 and 9.

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Order. Question 9 has in fact been withdrawn. The Attorney General did not need to know that and clearly did not know that, which is no indictment of him, but it has been withdrawn.

Leaving the EU: Human Rights

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7. What assessment he has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the protection of human rights in the UK. [901872]

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8. What assessment he has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the protection of human rights in the UK. [901873]

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

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When the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill returns to this House, we will debate the EU charter of fundamental rights. Will the Government support the codification of the charter into UK law following its departure from the EU, and will they support their own Back Benchers’ amendments that have cross-party support?

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No. The reason is that the charter of fundamental rights, as the Labour Government indicated at the time, does not create any new rights. It incorporates rights that are already part of European Union law, and the Government’s intention is to translate those substantive rights into domestic law by the operation of the withdrawal Act. We do not intend to incorporate the charter of fundamental rights into domestic law.

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How will leaving the European Union protect and enhance our rights, under the European convention on human rights, to free and fair elections of the legislature? Given that the vast majority of legislators in this country are not elected—they are Members of the House of Lords—are the Government confident that they will be complying with their ECHR obligations both before and after Brexit?

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Yes, we are confident that we are compliant with our ECHR obligations. The hon. Gentleman enables me to point out that, as he knows, our ECHR obligations will remain after we have left the European Union.

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The UK has always been at the forefront of international human rights. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we will continue such co-operation, not least, for example, under the auspices of the Council of Europe?

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I agree with my hon. Friend. I find it surprising that Members of this House have so little faith in their own institution. This House is perfectly capable of protecting the rights of the citizens of this country, and routinely does so. We do not need the assistance of the European Union to do it, and after we no longer have the assistance of the European Union, I am confident that this Parliament will continue to do it effectively.

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For many years, many people in this House seemed to think that human rights in this country started only with the Human Rights Act 1998, and they now seem to think that they started only with our membership of the European Union. Will the Attorney General confirm that our rights and freedoms in this country go back way beyond either of those points in our history, and will continue long into the future after they have both been replaced?

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The rest of the world is rightly jealous of this country’s ability to protect human rights through a robust system of the rule of law, a fiercely independent judiciary, and an effective legal profession.

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May I press the Minister following the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell)? Last week, in front of the Exiting the European Union Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) stated that the Government believe that the Human Rights Act can be relied on in place of the charter of fundamental rights. Does that mean that the Government are now fully committed to the retention of that Act beyond Brexit?

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I thought we had made clear that this country will remain a signatory to the European convention on human rights for the duration of this Parliament. The Under-Secretary of State was making the point that I made earlier: we are confident that the substantive rights that all Members of the House wish to continue to be protected, will remain protected in domestic law.

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Does the Attorney General agree that it is an absolutely absurd proposition to suggest that if we come out of the EU we will deliberately in some way reduce human rights? That is an absolute nonsense, and it is a shame that the Opposition are peddling it.

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I agree on both counts.

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The Attorney General does not seem to get the point. Our role in human rights in Europe has been to set the gold standard and to show an example. The Council of Europe has experienced recent cases of corruption, with a man called Luca Volontè who took a bribe. The chairmanship was by Azerbaijan—a corrupt country. Our role is not to protect our own human rights by being in Europe, but to set a standard that can be emulated by other countries that have very serious breaches of human rights.

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The hon. Gentleman may be in danger of confusing the European convention on human rights with the charter of fundamental rights. As I said, the Government he supported—the last Labour Government—made it clear that no new rights were created by the charter of fundamental rights. Therefore, taking away that charter cannot remove any rights, and the Government have no intention of doing so.

Online Abuse: Prosecution Rates

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10. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase prosecution rates for internet trolling and other forms of online abuse. [901875]

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The number of prosecutions commenced under the Communications Act 2003 and the Malicious Communications Act 1988, which include many online offences, have increased by 68% in the past three years.

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Latest figures show that the CPS successfully prosecuted 15,000 cases of hate crime in 2015-16. However, in the same year the number of cases referred to prosecutors by the police dropped by 10%. Can the Solicitor General explain why that should be?

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The CPS is working with the police locally and nationally to understand the reasons for that. Anecdotally, it is believed that some police forces are using restorative justice or out-of-court disposals where they could have pursued prosecutions. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman and make clear that it is unacceptable for any group or person to use the internet as a means to harass, intimidate or threaten individuals in an illegal manner online.

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Thank you. Oh no, we cannot stop now. We must hear Mr Hollobone.

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Which CPS area is best at prosecuting online abuse cases, and how might its best practice be rolled out to other areas?

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I do not have area-by-area figures, but I will endeavour to supply them to my hon. Friend. On hate crime, sentencing uplifts have increased, and they continue to do so, to 52.2% of cases last year—a rise from 33.8% in the previous year.

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What can be done to strip away the anonymity of online trolls who make life such a misery for people online?

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That issue is being considered as part of the code of practice that is being established, pursuant to the Digital Economy Act 2017. That code will set out guidance on what social media providers should do regarding conduct on their platforms, which includes the behaviour referred to by my hon. Friend. He also raised the important issue of anonymity, and the individuals who hide behind that and use it as a cloak for their illegal activities. The prosecution will always seek to pierce that cloak and prosecute those responsible.

Royal Assent

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I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Finance (No. 2) Act 2017

Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing Act 2017

Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017

New Southgate Cemetery Act 2017.

I am sure that the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017 will be of great interest in particular to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), when he has concluded his intense and, I am sure, extremely urgent conversation with the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane).