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Attorney General

Volume 638: debated on Thursday 22 March 2018

The Attorney General was asked—

Crown Prosecution Service: Northamptonshire

1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service in Northamptonshire. (904509)

The CPS in Northamptonshire excels in a number of key areas. For example, its rape conviction rate is nearly 10% above the national average. I also highlight the case of Nicholas and Joan Taylor, who were convicted of 84 offences related to child abuse committed against 11 victims over a decade. That was the subject of one of the largest investigations conducted by Northamptonshire police, resulting in life sentences with minimum terms of 18 years.

Like any other area, CPS East Midlands is aware of the need to improve its victim communications and liaison, and its engagement with the community, to ensure that the quality of its casework improves. I do, however, commend the service for its work on hate crime, with a conviction rate of over 90%.

Would the CPS in the county, in an alleged case of a police officer mistreating a criminal, be expected to ask whether and when the investigating police first interviewed the recorded officer in charge—the arresting officer—before agreeing to charge someone else?

I would expect the CPS to make sure, in any case, that there has been a thorough disclosure exercise involving a proper review of all documentation and a complete review of the history of the case, and that the evidence is followed wherever it leads.

Domestic Abuse: Victim Withdrawal

2. What steps the Government are taking to reduce the level of victim withdrawal in cases involving domestic abuse. (904510)

4. What steps the Government are taking to reduce the level of victim withdrawal in cases involving domestic abuse. (904512)

The Government see the response to domestic abuse as a top priority. We want every victim to have full confidence in the justice system. When cases go to trial, a number of measures are already in place to support victims to give their best evidence. Where possible, we will take prosecutions forward without victims having to give evidence.

The new offence of coercive behaviour is an important reform that was introduced by the Government. What success has the CPS had in securing successful prosecutions under this new offence?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this important reform that I managed to take through as part of the Serious Crime Act 2015. Between the commencement of the offence in December 2015 and April last year, more than 300 cases have been charged and reached a first hearing. That is progress. The offence also allows the police to intervene in relationships at an earlier stage than they have in the past.

Of course, the importance of the legal change is fundamental, as those of us who followed the story in “The Archers” are particularly aware. However, there is a technological solution to some of this as well. Will the Solicitor General join me in praising Kent police for its work in introducing body-worn cameras? That can mean that victims do not have to give evidence, ending the situation we so often find when they will not do so.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention body-worn cameras, which can, in a moment, capture the aftermath of an incident of domestic abuse, or indeed an ongoing incident. That often spares the victim from having to bear the complete burden of helping the prosecution to prove the case, or from having to give evidence at all.

Is the Solicitor General aware of the proposal that the Probation Board for Northern Ireland has announced today to introduce a 12-month programme, pre-sentence, for those who are engaged in domestic abuse? Will he consider the contents of that proposal and perhaps introduce it in England as well?

I will certainly be interested to consider the contents, although of course this is primarily a matter for my colleagues at the Ministry of Justice. I will say, however, that any programme of engagement with perpetrators needs to be very carefully calibrated. Such programmes can work, but more research needs to be done to make sure that we get it right.

Victim withdrawal is starting to become a problem in cases of revenge pornography, in respect of which the law was changed last year. What additional steps can we take to provide further support to victims to ensure that they get justice?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of victim withdrawal. The consultation launched by the Government only a couple of weeks ago is looking at further ways to increase support, such as through a presumption that victims in domestic abuse cases will get special measures as opposed to having to demonstrate a particular vulnerability. All the measures that we take, such as preventing complainants from having to go to court by allowing them to give evidence via live link, need to be part of a continuing package. The message needs to go out that victims will not suffer in silence—they will be supported.

I have previously had exchanges with the Solicitor General about data collection. May I ask that in the case of revenge pornography, we now carefully collect data about the number of incidents reported, the number of prosecutions, and the numbers that are dealt with through fines, prison, community orders and harassment orders? In that way, we can monitor whether this is actually working.

The hon. Gentleman makes a proper point about the importance of data collection. The issue has been the need to disaggregate particular batches of data so that we understand them better. The CPS has certainly improved on that, and we have started to disaggregate in a number of areas. I will follow up on the specific matter of revenge pornography.

Leaving the EU: Legal Systems

3. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the operation of legal systems in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. (904511)

The Government have introduced the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to provide for legal continuity when the UK leaves the EU. The Bill minimises disruption to each legal system by preserving current EU rules and conferring powers on UK and devolved Government Ministers to make necessary corrections to those rules. Once we have left the EU, it will be for Parliament and the devolved legislatures to decide whether it is appropriate to make changes to the retained EU rules that operate in each legal system.

The Prime Minister has made a number of concessions regarding the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice after Brexit. Given that the Scottish Government’s EU continuity Bill provides that, when exercising devolved jurisdiction, Scottish courts may have regard to the decisions of the ECJ, is it not time to amend clause 6 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to the same effect?

As the hon. Lady says, the Government have been realistic about the degree to which our courts are likely to look at the jurisprudence of the Court of Justice of the European Union, at least until the point at which our law starts to diverge from what will then be European Union law. As I understand it, there was a constructive debate yesterday on clause 11 of the withdrawal Bill in the other place. I hope very much that we will make further progress and that the Scottish National party will engage in that with the proper spirit.

Does the Attorney General agree that one of the advantages of coming out of the European Union superstate in just over 365 days’ time is that decisions will be made by not a foreign court, but our Supreme Court?

My hon. Friend is right. One of the things that we rather suspect led a great number of our fellow countrymen and women to vote for European Union exit was exactly that prospect.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) asked the Attorney General to comment on clause 6 of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. It is not just the Scottish Parliament that thinks that clause 6 is inadequate. Yesterday, the President of the United Kingdom Supreme Court told the House of Lords Constitution Committee that clause 6 as it stands is “very unhelpful” and that it could leave the judiciary at risk of

“appearing to make a political decision”.

What is the Attorney General going to do to address not just the concerns of the Scottish Parliament, but those of the President of the UK Supreme Court?

We are already doing a great deal to attempt to reassure the judiciary. The hon. and learned Lady is right to say that yesterday Baroness Hale raised, as others have done before her, concerns that the judiciary have expressed about being put in a position where they are expected to make a political judgment. That is not the Government’s intention. We do not expect judges to make political judgments. Indeed, we absolutely want them not to do that. We do want them to be able to interpret the law as it will stand post exit, with all the necessary guidance we can give them. We will continue to work with them to provide the necessary clarity

Cyber-activities: Rule of Law

5. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the application of the rule of law to cyber-activities. (904513)

8. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the application of the rule of law to cyber-activities. (904516)

Cyber-space is not a lawless world. When states and individuals engage in hostile cyber-operations, they are governed by the law, just as they are elsewhere. The UK has always been clear that we consider cyber-space to be governed by the wider rules-based international order that we are proud to promote.

What actions can we take against those countries that we know are carrying out hostile actions in cyber-space?

Many states accept that international law covers cyber-space. In June 2015, there was a decision by 20 United Nations states to confirm that. Interestingly, one of those 20 states was Russia. Our argument, therefore, is that if there is an internationally wrongful act against the UK in cyber-space or anywhere else, the UK is entitled to respond.

In confirming that the UN charter also applies to state actions in cyber-space, will the Attorney General also confirm that that includes the prohibition on the use of force?

Yes, I can. The UN charter applies in its entirety to cyber-space, including the general prohibition on the use of force and the ability of states to defend themselves.

Order. I want to get down the Order Paper, so I will take each of the two hon. Members on condition that they give a short sentence each, not two, three, or four sentences.

What is the Attorney General going to do about the horrendous breach of cyber-security by Cambridge Analytica, and who are the right people to prosecute?

The hon. Gentleman will know from what the Prime Minister said yesterday that the Information Commissioner is already engaged in an investigation. It is important that she has the powers to investigate properly, and the Data Protection Bill, which was referred to previously, will give additional force to that.

A C1 cyber-attack is a matter of when, not if. Will the Attorney General outline the steps his Department is taking to protect the masses of digital personal information files held, and are there plans to upgrade this protection?

I fear that that needs more than a one-sentence answer. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that it is certainly a responsibility not just of the Government, but of each of us, to ensure that data on organisations and individuals is as well protected as it can be.

Modern Slavery: Prosecutions

6. What steps the CPS is taking domestically and internationally to increase the effectiveness of prosecutions in cases involving modern slavery. (904514)

We are committed to stamping out modern-day slavery both domestically and internationally. Last month, the Director of Public Prosecutions hosted an international summit for 15 countries’ prosecutors from around the world; as a result, our international response will be strengthened.

I thank the Solicitor General for that answer. Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate has recently examined the way in which the Crown Prosecution Service deals with modern slavery. What is his assessment of that report?

While the report showed that there are areas for improvement, it also showed that the CPS’s decision making in complex cases is good, and that successful prosecutions are built from early engagement between the CPS and specialist police teams. I am pleased to say that mandatory face-to-face training for prosecutors on modern slavery is taking place at this very moment.

Crown Prosecution Service: Disclosure Obligations

7. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the resources available to the CPS to fulfil its disclosure obligations. (904515)

The Director of Public Prosecutions has made it clear that the disclosure problems we have been seeing are not caused by resource issues. The challenges are broad and stretch across the criminal justice system, which is why I am pleased that the police and the CPS have come together to take forward their national disclosure improvement plan. As the hon. Lady knows, I am also undertaking a wider review of disclosure, which aims to report by this summer.

With so much communication on digital platforms, disclosure is becoming more time-consuming, and without proper resources we cannot have an effective disclosure process. What is the Attorney General going to do about it?

The hon. Lady is right. In essence, two sets of problems are occurring with disclosure. One is in relation to so-called acquaintance rape cases where, frankly, information that should be disclosed and identified simply has not been. The other set of cases involves exactly the issue she raises: very large quantities of digital material. We have to find smarter ways to analyse and winnow such information so that the right things are disclosed. That is exactly the sort of thing my review will look at.

Leaving the EU: Human Rights

9. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the protection of human rights in the UK. (904517)

The United Kingdom has a long tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically and of fulfilling its international human rights obligations. That will remain true when we have left the European Union.

The Scottish Government’s continuity Bill incorporates the charter of fundamental rights into Scots law in so far as it applies to devolved matters. What are the UK Government doing to make sure that everyone in the UK keeps the rights protected by the charter, regardless of where they live in the UK?

The hon. Lady needs to recognise that the charter of fundamental rights is an EU document—it applies to member states’ application of EU law. When we are no longer members of the EU, it does not make much sense for us to continue to adhere to it. On the substance of her point, the Government have been very clear that we will protect the substantive rights in other places, as we already do to a very large degree through domestic law, the European convention on human rights and in other ways.

Crimes against Disabled People: Prosecutions

10. What steps the CPS is taking to increase the effectiveness of prosecutions for crimes against disabled people. (904518)

The effects of crimes against disabled people are damaging and wide-ranging, and those crimes have no place in our society. To raise awareness of them, the CPS has revised its public policy statement, and published guides on reporting and recognising hate crime, and a support guide for victims with disabilities.

What more can disability groups in my constituency do to raise the question of disability hate crime?

My hon. Friend is right to talk about the invaluable role played by disability support groups. Third-party reporting, where people with disabilities can have the confidence to report a crime, is invaluable. My advice would be for them to work with the police to make sure that we drive up rates of reporting and the number of prosecutions.

Support for Victims of Crime

The CPS takes its responsibilities to support victims and witnesses very seriously. We want to reduce the stress of court and ensure that all victims and witnesses can give their best evidence. For example, CPS advocates are responsible for speaking to complainants and witnesses before or at court so that they feel better supported.

Will my hon. and learned Friend explain to my constituent, who was violently assaulted and received horrific life-changing injuries in an awful crime, exactly how the CPS is supporting victims of crime? In this case, the perpetrator of the attack received 22 months in prison and was released early, and the CPS failed to pursue a compensation order against him.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the way she is pursuing justice for her constituent. There is a natural limit to what I can say appropriately in the House on this matter, but I wish to offer her a meeting with the chief Crown prosecutor for the east of England to discuss this troubling case in more detail.