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Attorney General

Volume 640: debated on Thursday 10 May 2018

The Attorney General was asked—

Knife Crime

The serious violence strategy, published on 9 April, sets out our response to serious violence, which includes knife crime. We will legislate to tighten the law in this area, and the Crown Prosecution Service continues to work with law enforcement agencies to tackle knife crime and other forms of serious violence.

Following Donald Trump’s speech to the National Rifle Association, does the Solicitor General agree that the streets of London would be far more dangerous for communities if criminals and gang members were armed with automatic weapons rather than knives? Does he agree that while longer sentences for knife offenders are important, we also need to do more to understand the underlying causes of knife crime and gang violence?

My hon. Friend is right about the need to tackle the underlying reasons for knife crime, whether that is carried out by gangs or young people in isolation. That sort of work is far more valuable than attempts by the President of the United States to channel Sean Connery in “The Untouchables”.

How can the Minister alleviate concerns over recent reports in the national press about the prevalence of knife crime in our towns and cities? What action are the Government taking to co-ordinate an approach to those offences?

My hon. Friend speaks with bitter and sad experience, given the appalling case in his constituency, and I send my condolences to everybody concerned. It is clear that we are seeing a rise in the use of knives in some of our towns and cities. Some of that information is a result of better police work and increased reporting, but there is no doubt that we have a challenge to face, particularly with our young people. I am glad that the strategy we have set out deals not only with prosecution, but with the root causes of knife crime. We must teach young people about the dangers of knife crime at appropriate times, including both after and before such offences are committed.

The 42.2% rise in knife crime in schools on the mainland is in stark contrast to the one conviction per year in Northern Ireland’s schools. What discussions has the Solicitor General had with his devolved counterparts about the approach to juvenile convictions in Northern Ireland?

I am interested in the work being done not only in Northern Ireland, but in Scotland, and I am a member of the inter-ministerial group that deals with these issues. We are working with, and obtaining as much information and learning as possible from, the devolved parts of the United Kingdom so that we can improve our approach. This is not just a question of crime; it is a question of health education, and if we deal with it in that way, we might start to crack the problem.

In Scotland, crimes involving a weapon are down by two thirds since 2007, and the Scottish Government’s whole-system approach to youth crime incorporates innovative approaches from the prosecution service in Scotland, including diversion from prosecution where appropriate. Will the Solicitor General follow Met Commissioner Cressida Dick in coming to Scotland to view the excellent work being done on knife crime there?

The hon. and learned Lady develops the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and I would be keen to learn more. I have already started that process by delving into the Scottish experience, and I am glad that the learning and experience in Scotland is being absorbed into thinking and policy development south of the border. I would be happy to take up the hon. and learned Lady’s invitation.

Domestic Violence

2. What recent discussions he has had with the CPS on its effectiveness in prosecuting cases involving domestic violence. (905220)

I discuss domestic abuse regularly with the CPS, which continues to improve its performance in that area. In the 10 years between 2007 and 2017, the number of convictions secured rose by 61%. The conviction rate rose to its highest ever level of 75.7% last year.

I thank the Attorney General for that answer, but he will appreciate that stark regional variations in the rates of prosecution for domestic abuse exist throughout the country. What specific steps will he take to ensure consistency and fairness right across the country?

The hon. Lady is right to say that there is variation including, as she knows, in the number of cases referred to the CPS by the police. Of course, the CPS cannot prosecute unless a case is referred to it. We must ensure that those variations are understood and ironed out where possible, and the CPS is working closely with the police at a regional and national level to ensure that that happens.

Which regional CPS prosecutes domestic violence the best and which prosecutes it the worst, and will the Attorney General put the two together to compare notes?

As ever, my hon. Friend finds out the homework that I have not done, but if I can get back to him with those figures, I will. To reinforce the point I made to the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), it is important that the CPS understands where regional variation occurs and the reasons for that and, where possible, we must ensure that lessons from the best are learned by the worst.

Despite the fact that, as we know, far too many victims of domestic violence still do not come forward, the violence against women and girls crime report shows that the overall volume of domestic violence prosecutions fell from 100,913 in 2016 to 93,519 in 2017. Does the Attorney General expect that figure to start rising again this year?

As I indicated, I think that part of that is to do with referrals. It is important to be clear about what is driving the figures, and I think a large part is those cases that are not referred by the police to the CPS for prosecution at the moment.

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point about the wider picture. It is important that we do all that we can to ensure that victims of domestic violence feel able to come forward to report what has happened to them and that they feel confident that the criminal justice system will deal with them sensitively. He will know that we have put in place a range of measures—not least to enable giving evidence to be somewhat easier—to make sure that that happens.

The Attorney General is right to refer to referrals, but it is important that we do all that we can to ensure that the criminal justice system supports victims. If the figure does not rise in 2018, will he undertake to look again at the domestic abuse guidelines for prosecutors to ensure that we are doing all we possibly can in this area?

I will certainly do that. It is important that we keep the figures under constant review. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are engaged in a consultation, to which we have already had some 800 responses, on the broader picture of domestic abuse. It is important that we look at both legislative and non-legislative options to make sure that across the board we are doing all we can to support victims.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that new technologies such as video evidence give victims of domestic abuse greater access to justice by helping them to come forward and challenge their abusers?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important, where we can, to be sensitive to vulnerable witnesses who do not wish to face the defendant. Through the roll-out of pilots involving pre-recorded cross-examination as well as examination-in-chief, they will be able to get their part in the case over with entirely without going into the court room.

Following prosecution, effective perpetrator interventions, such as those with which I worked before I became an MP—I declare an interest—can help to prevent domestic violence offenders becoming repeat offenders. Will the Attorney General encourage Members across the House to join the all-party group on perpetrator programmes, which I am launching next week?

I am not sure if I am allowed to do endorsements, Mr Speaker, but I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. What she refers to is incredibly important. I am sure all Members would wish to pay tribute to the work she has done. It is important, because we need to make sure that, across the spectrum of activities we can carry out, we do all that we can to reduce the incidence of domestic abuse before it happens. It is far better, as she says, to do that than to deal with these matters through prosecution. I hope that she will be able to contribute to the consultation that is under way and give it the benefit of her wisdom.

Will the Attorney General speak to colleagues in the Department for Education about the merits of training more domestic violence specialist social workers, given that about three quarters of child safeguarding cases involve domestic violence? That might help with prevention and provide more information that can lead to successful prosecutions.

I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a very good point. It is important that we look at ways in which we can prevent as well as cure through the prosecution process. Social workers have a hugely important part to play and we want to make sure that we work with them.

Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

The unduly lenient sentence scheme remains an important avenue for victims, family members and the wider public to ensure that justice is delivered. In 2017, the Solicitor General and I referred 173 cases to the Court of Appeal for consideration. Of those, the Court agreed that 144 sentences were unduly lenient and increased 137 of them.

I thank the Attorney General for that answer. Will he explain the process by which a referral is made and how decisions are taken, because it is very important that victims’ families understand it.

I agree with my hon. Friend. In the time that we have held our positions, the Solicitor General and I have been very keen to ensure that there are no procedural barriers to prevent anyone making use of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. There is no particular rubric or form that needs to be filled in. All that anyone who is concerned about a criminal sentence needs to do is to contact the Attorney General’s office. If the case is within the scheme, we will look at it. What will then happen is that if either the Solicitor General or I believe that a sentence is unduly lenient, we will make a reference to the Court of Appeal. In the end, the Court of Appeal will decide.

I am not sure that I agree with the first part of my right hon. Friend’s question, but in answer to the second part, he will know that the Conservative party has now set out in two successive general election manifestos our commitment to extending the scheme. He will know that we have made a very good start by extending it last August to several additional terrorism offences. He and I both hope that we will be able to go further.

Recently, 26 out of 30 people who were involved in a pack-style attack were sentenced after some excellent work by Humberside police, but my constituents in Grimsby are really alarmed that they have effectively been given a sentence of litter picking. Does the Attorney General agree that that sends the wrong message about such group attacks on defenceless individuals?

I understand what the hon. Lady says, but she will understand, of course, that I would need to see a great deal more detail to make a judgment about that sentence. If that is a relatively recent sentence, I encourage her to refer it, if she wishes, to the Law Officers so that we can look at it. I advise her that there is a 28-day statutory time limit after the point of sentence, so if she can, I would ask her to get on with it.

If the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) were not already on the Christmas card list of his hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), it is a safe bet that he is now. I call Mr Philip Davies.

I commend the Attorney General and the Solicitor General for what they do in appealing unduly lenient sentences, which they carry out with great skill—I am very impressed by their work. However, the Attorney General said that he hopes that the scheme will be extended, and he also said that we have been promising this for quite some time, so can he give us a date for when we will extend the unduly lenient sentence scheme?

As I said to the House a moment ago, the scheme has already been extended—a number of terrorism offences have been brought under the scheme—but my hon. Friend knows that I share his enthusiasm for further extension. It seems important to me that victims of crime, and members of the public more broadly, can access the scheme across a broader range of offences so that when mistakes are made, which he will recognise is a rare event in the criminal justice system—about 80,000 criminal cases are heard in the Crown court every year and, as I indicated, 137 sentences were increased last year—they can be remedied.

My right hon. learned Friend will be aware of a case that I referred to him, which he said was out of the scope of the scheme. I urge him to look at expanding the scope of the scheme so that justice is done, and is seen to be done, particularly by victims of crime.

Hate Crime

The Crown Prosecution Service continues to play its part in delivering the cross-Government hate crime action plan. In the last year, 14,480 hate crime prosecutions were completed and the conviction rate was 83.4%.

In thanking my hon. and learned Friend for that answer, may I ask him what steps the CPS is taking to improve prosecution rates for disability hate crimes?

Disability hate crime has long been a concern of mine, and it is very much the poor relation when it comes to these offences. They are difficult to deal with, because very often victims feel that the incident is part of their normal life and that they should suffer in silence. The message must go out clearly that that should not be the case. I am glad that there has been an increase in prosecutions and an increase in the use of sentencing uplifts, through which judges can increase sentences to reflect aggravating factors such as disability hate.

Tonight, Nottingham Citizens, of which I am a patron, will launch its “Still No Place For Hate” report. It will highlight the fact that almost a third of people surveyed had experienced hate crime related to protected characteristics and that much of that had gone unreported. What assurances can the Attorney General give people in Nottingham that if they do report such crime, it will be prosecuted properly?

I welcome the publication of the report to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I went to Nottingham only a few months ago to visit the east midlands Crown Prosecution Service, and I know that if he works with it—either through me or directly—he will find out more about the actions that it is taking. I assure him that it has a structured plan and takes all strands of hate crime extremely seriously.

Director of Public Prosecutions

The recruitment campaign for the next Director of Public Prosecutions is under way and is due to close on 14 May. The job requires excellent legal judgment, the ability to lead a large organisation and the capacity to work with others in improving the criminal justice system as a whole. This is an exciting time to be joining the Crown Prosecution Service and to play a pivotal role in shaping the organisation for the future.

The Attorney General will be aware that many concerns about disclosure have been an issue with the CPS in recent months. Can he confirm that the new DPP will have enough resources to tackle this time-intensive task?

The hon. Lady knows that I am aware of those concerns, and she also knows that we are looking at disclosure more broadly, as I instituted a review in December last year. She is, however, right to say that one of the primary tasks of the present DPP, as well as the next one, is to get disclosure right throughout the range of cases taken on by the CPS. I will continue to discuss resources with the DPP and, indeed, Government colleagues.

Will the Attorney General bear in mind the widely held opinion that the important, delicate and often finely balanced judgments that the DPP must make require informed views that result from lengthy frontline experience of prosecuting serious cases day in, day out, at the highest level, and that that must be an important consideration when selecting the successor to the current DPP?

My hon. Friend is right. He is aware of the statutory requirement that applicants have at least 10 years’ practising experience, but the matter that he raises will also be an important consideration.

Gangs: Exploitation of Vulnerable People

8. What steps the CPS is taking to increase its effectiveness in prosecuting crimes involving the exploitation of vulnerable people by gangs. (905228)

9. What steps the CPS is taking to increase its effectiveness in prosecuting crimes involving the exploitation of vulnerable people by gangs. (905229)

The exploitation of vulnerable people to traffic drugs across the country through county lines activity is abhorrent, and the CPS does consider modern slavery legislation when it comes to relevant charging decisions.

In Chichester, drug dealers are regularly taking over the homes of vulnerable people who suffer from mental health problems or from drug dependency themselves in a process known as cuckooing. Sussex police tell me that they struggle to identify the gang leaders who control the cuckoos as they are based outside the county. What steps is the CPS taking to prosecute those gang leaders effectively, so that others are deterred from exploiting the most vulnerable in society?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of cuckooing and the need for local police forces such as Sussex to collaborate with other forces. A good example was a case last month in which two London-based gang members were convicted in Swansea Crown court of trafficking a teenage girl to the city to deal heroin and crack cocaine.

Essex, being one of the home counties, suffers from the displacement effect of gang activity from London, and we have unfortunately seen pockets—it is only pockets at this stage—of violent gang activity in the county. What financial resources are the Government allocating to tackle serious gang violence?

My hon. Friend has correctly characterised the nature of some of this gang offending. The Government’s serious violence strategy involves a new commitment of £40 million over two years, which includes £11 million for the early intervention youth fund and £3.6 million for the new national county lines co-ordination centre.

Royal Assent

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

Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Act 2018

Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018

Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Act 2018

Statute Law (Repeals) Measure 2018

Pensions (Pre-consolidation) Measure 2018

Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Care of Churches Measure 2018

Mission and Pastoral etc. Amendment Measure 2018

The hon. Gentleman wants more. I have news for the hon. Gentleman—he is going to get more. Maybe not much more, but a bit more:

Legislative Reform Measure 2018.