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Attorney General

Volume 646: debated on Thursday 6 September 2018

The Attorney General was asked—

Knife Crime: Prosecution Rates

1. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving prosecution rates for knife crime. (906696)

We are working closely with other Departments to urgently tackle this issue, which we recognise as a national priority. As a member of the inter-ministerial group on serious violence, we are playing a central role in the delivery of the serious violence strategy, which looks to address violent offending to improve knife crime prosecution rates.

The proportion of people receiving a custodial sentence for knife possession has risen from 40% in 2010 to almost 70% today, yet in the past five years there has been a sustained and shocking increase in knife crime, suggesting that harsher sentences simply are not the answer. Will the Attorney General look at two things: first, some creative alternatives to prison, such as electronic tagging or banning young people from social media if they use it to incite violence; and, secondly, more ways to reduce reoffending through education and rehabilitation to keep young people out of the prison system?

I know that the hon. Lady has a keen local interest in the issue, which affects Croydon as much as other parts of our country. I do not think that there is a direct correlation. We have seen a rise in knife crime since early 2016, and it is right that we have approached the issue of possession in a more serious way. However, I take her points about causation on board. I recently visited the Ben Kinsella Trust in north London, with which I know she is familiar. I am deeply impressed by the trust’s work with young people, and it is that sort of interventionist approach at an early stage that can help to deal with this problem.

What conversations have the Solicitor General or the Attorney General had across Government and with retailers about cutting down on the online sale of knives?

My hon. Friend may be aware that we are working on the new Offensive Weapons Bill, which is going through the House. That Bill includes a measure to make it an offence to deal with knives bought online being sent to residential addresses without appropriate safeguards.

I do apologise to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but I think that the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) wishes to come in on Question 1 from the Front Bench.

Thank you very much Mr Speaker; you are forgiven. I welcome the Attorney General to his post, and it is good to see the indefatigable Solicitor General still in his place.

Given the current knife crime epidemic in England and Wales, with rates up by 54% in three years, I know that the Government and the Met have been looking to Scotland, and particularly Glasgow, where hospital admissions for slashes and stab wounds have fallen by 65% in 12 years. Will the Solicitor General update the House regarding what policies and practices enacted in Glasgow will be replicated in London, or in England and Wales more widely, following a delegation visiting Glasgow?

Yes, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the excellent Glasgow example. I am making plans to visit Glasgow as soon as possible. Only last month I spoke to the Scottish Law Officers about their experience. I am deeply interested and want to learn more as quickly as possible.

Serious Fraud Office

Serious fraud losses are estimated at over £190 billion a year. The SFO is an essential component of our national effort against financial crime. It is responsible for some of the largest and most complex cases. In the past five financial years, 25 out of 30 of its prosecutions resulted in convictions, which is a rate of 83%. I thank Sir David Green for his leadership and guidance in the last six years of momentous legislative change. The SFO is an important and central player, and it will remain so with the Government’s commitment. It is a vital part of our national effort against fraud.

The Attorney General knows that I have a keen interest in this area and that I, like many Members on both sides of the House, want to see an effective and efficient Serious Fraud Office. We are still seriously concerned that if the SFO is not resourced well enough, and does not have enough staff and sufficient budget to do the job, it will increasingly become reliant on the big accountancy and legal firms. He knows the problem, so will he meet a few Members from across the parties to talk about this?

I am always willing to have a constructive dialogue with the hon. Gentleman and any Opposition Member, but I must say that I do not recognise the problem. I have inquired into this issue with the SFO and there is no significant commissioning of the big four. We have increased the SFO’s core budget and we are still making available blockbuster funding for large cases. With the new director giving fresh energy and a fresh perspective to the leadership of the SFO, I hope that we shall see an already good performance much improved.

In the past four financial years, £650 million of financial penalties has been recovered by deferred prosecution agreements. Millions of pounds have been recovered. The total cost of the total amounts of fraud that have been prosecuted amounts to hundreds of millions.

Criminal Legal Aid

3. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on recent changes to criminal legal aid. (906698)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, legal aid policy does not lie within the ministerial responsibilities of the Attorney General, but I have met the Secretary of State already and will do so regularly to discuss matters of common interest in respect of our departmental responsibilities. As Attorney General, I have a particular interest in the legal professions, and I am concerned to ensure that the professions’ standards remain high and that they are able to attract entrants of the highest calibre. To that end, I am pleased that the Ministry of Justice continues to make provision of £1.6 billion a year in legal aid. It has recently allocated an additional £15 million to the advocates’ graduated fee scheme for Crown court representation. It has published its proposals, and I hope that they will be welcomed by the criminal Bar.

Anyone who cares about the legal aid system will be aware that there are challenges. The Scottish Government have undertaken a review of legal aid to make the system simpler, more flexible and more cost-effective. Will the Attorney General discuss with the Justice Secretary undertaking a similar review and following the recommendations of the Justice Committee report on that?

I am aware of the Scottish Government’s review and will be interested to see the Scottish Government’s response, which I understand is still awaited. We are carrying out our own review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. It is a careful review of the policies and choices made in that legislation. Evidence is currently being gathered. A second round of meetings took place in July, and over 80 organisations have already engaged with this. The evidence is due to be submitted by the end of this month, and we will publish the review later this year.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that a sufficient number of criminal legal aid lawyers can provide suitable coverage across the country?

The Legal Aid Agency maintains a watch on this. The number of offices and solicitors’ firms to which franchises have been granted has increased. However, we clearly need to maintain a close watch on this. In my capacity as being interested in the prosperity, welfare and health of the legal professions, I shall certainly keep a close eye on it.

Economic Crime

Tackling economic crime requires a sophisticated multi-agency and cross-Government response. The Crown Prosecution Service is a vital part of that response. It prosecutes some of the more serious and complex cases, recovering a huge amount of ill-gotten gains. The Government are committed to tackling economic crime. We are introducing a programme of reforms to bring forward shortly, in particular, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) will know, the National Economic Crime Centre.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his well-deserved appointment. How effective does he believe that the new unexplained wealth orders will be in obtaining funds from criminals and their associates? How will this be applied to foreign criminals? Has he made any assessment of how much money will be raised in the next financial year, and how will that money be spent?

Unexplained wealth orders are a particularly valuable part of the armoury of the law enforcement agencies against corruption and bribery. They are a novel tool. The Government and the law enforcement agencies are looking at the correct and appropriate cases in which to use them. I am not aware of whether there has yet been any estimate of what might be realised by their use, but I expect that considerable numbers of them will be used over the coming months. An exercise is being undertaken to scope the first few to be started.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend update the House on the impact of the introduction of deferred prosecution agreements in tackling cases of economic crime, and particularly corruption and bribery?

This has been a particular success story. The current numbers, as I said earlier, show that these agreements have realised £650 million in penalties. They have been applied to some of the biggest multinational corporations in the country, ranging from banks to major supermarkets. They are a valuable tool, and I hope to see an increased use of them, but they have to be used carefully, because plainly they are not a substitute for prosecution; they can only be used in the right circumstances where, according to the code, they are the appropriate action.

I welcome the Attorney General to his role and wish him well.

An essential part of our action against economic crime is tough action internationally, including a public register of beneficial ownership of companies based in the overseas territories, yet in a debate on 1 May, the Attorney General spoke out about that, saying about publicity:

“All it will mean is that the money goes to where it is darkest”.—[Official Report, 1 May 2018; Vol. 640, c. 203.]

Has the Attorney General now changed his mind?

I am disappointed with the hon. Gentleman. As we get to know each other, he will realise that that is not the sort of approach I would take. Let me explain to him what I said, and if he reads Hansard, he will be able to check it. I said that the means being proposed in the House at that time—namely the imposition of legislation from the centre—offended the devolved settlement that had been given to the Cayman Islands. I fully support the substantive policy of the Government, which is the increase of the use of public registers. I raised the subject at the “Five Eyes” conference last week and urged other countries to follow our example.

I am always sorry to disappoint, but I have to say to the Attorney General that I have read Hansard very thoroughly and the numerous interventions he made about that. I was disappointed with the main thrust of his answer. If the Government are serious about transparency of our overseas territories, surely the Attorney General must be enthusiastic about it. Can he completely recant what he previously said?

I repeat: the fact of the matter is that I did not say what the hon. Gentleman says I said. I objected on a constitutional ground that a devolved settlement was being overridden. I fully support the transparency policy of the Government, and if he looks more closely at Hansard—I can take him through it—he will see that I am right.

I call Will Quince—[Interruption.] I do beg the hon. Lady’s pardon; it is not personally directed at the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden).

Victims and Witnesses: Support

The CPS continues to work with criminal justice partners to ensure that the support offered to victims and witnesses is tailored to meet their needs. Prosecutors will meet victims and witnesses before they give evidence to explain what is likely to happen in court and consider whether special measures such as screens or TV links can be used to help them to give their evidence.

Registered intermediaries support children and vulnerable witnesses in court, but as BBC Wales reported last week, there is only one for the whole of Wales, including Gwent. In view of that, is the Solicitor General confident that equal access to justice is being delivered?

I was concerned to hear that report, because I myself have used registered intermediaries as a prosecutor, and I know that they have been readily used in courts across the length and breadth of Gwent and south Wales. I note that there has been an increase in recruitment in the south-east of England. I will take on board the hon. Lady’s point and make further inquiries so that we can ensure that there is equal access to intermediaries throughout the length and breadth of the jurisdiction.

Given the pressures of giving evidence in court, including for victims of rape, does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is right that the Government have allocated £96 million of Government investment to support mental health services and vulnerable witnesses?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. She is absolutely right to identify the important funding that will support witnesses giving evidence. Without witnesses giving evidence, prosecutions will not succeed.

By when will the Government introduce the measures necessary to prevent victims of domestic violence from being questioned by perpetrators in family courts?

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is and remains a key manifesto commitment for our Government. We want to introduce it via new domestic violence legislation. My colleagues in the Home Office are working on a draft Bill, and I very much hope that it will be introduced for parliamentary consideration as soon as possible this year.

Will the Solicitor General provide further clarification about the additional protections needed in the prosecutions of victims of child sexual exploitation, particularly when there sometimes appears to be a blurring of the line between victim and perpetrator?

It is right to identify the sometimes difficult and delicate choices that have to be made by the police and prosecutors when it comes to dealing properly with the victims of this appalling crime, who have often had no voice at all. A range of available measures need to be used, and they are now becoming the norm in our courts. I think we can go even further, such as by looking at a presumption that special measures will apply in such cases without the need for an application. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question.

Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

7. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. (906703)

Last year, the unduly lenient sentence scheme involved the referral by the Attorney General and me of 173 cases to the Court of Appeal. Of those 173 cases, the Court of Appeal agreed that 144 were unduly lenient. The scheme remains an important avenue for victims, family members and the public to ensure that justice is delivered.

I thank the Solicitor General for that response. Does he agree that urgent attention should be given to extending the unduly lenient sentence scheme to cover the production and/or distribution of indecent images of children?

We are giving urgent consideration to extending the scope of the scheme, and I have said on record that I strongly advocate the scheme’s extension to that type of offence. Online abuse of children is as insidious as abuse offline, and it can be achieved in a much quicker timeframe than has been the case. I want to make sure that the public have full confidence in the system, and that is why I strongly support the extension of the scheme in that respect.

I thank the Solicitor General for his response. Will he carry out a review of sentencing on the basis of the successful applications to the unduly lenient sentence scheme? I think that it is important to have a review.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, happily, we are dealing with a small number of the about 80,000 cases prosecuted in the Crown court in England and Wales. Day in and day out, our judges are complying with the guidelines, where appropriate, and getting it right. This scheme is an important safety valve to ensure that we get maximum consistency and confidence, as well as guidance from the Court of Appeal on sentences for new offences.

We can see an increase in public interest—we have reached a figure of nearly 1,000 inquiries from members of the public and agencies this year. We are using social media and the mainstream media to publicise the scheme, talking about individual cases of note and making sure that as many people as possible, including victims and their families, know about their rights.

In July, a 13-year-old took to the rooftops in Grimsby and caused over £2,000 of damage—tearing down tiles, throwing them at police cars and hitting a police officer. Frankly, he has been causing misery for his neighbours and the whole town for months. He has just been given a year’s supervision, a curfew and a fine of just £20. What confidence can the Solicitor General give to people in Grimsby that this sentence will be effective in deterring other young people from behaving in such a lawless fashion?

The hon. Lady rightly raises a case of great concern to her constituents, and we as constituency MPs will have similar experiences. I cannot comment on the individual case, but it sounds to me as though it probably would not be within the scheme.

Indeed, the question the hon. Lady asks is about confidence, and we are playing our part as Law Officers to ensure that it increases. The fact that she has raised the case today will again help those responsible to understand the need for consistency when it comes to dealing with serious offences.

Modern Slavery: Prosecutions

8. What steps the CPS is taking (a) domestically and (b) internationally to increase the effectiveness of prosecutions for modern slavery. (906704)

9. What recent discussions he has had with the CPS on the effectiveness of prosecutions in cases involving modern slavery. (906707)

The Director of Public Prosecutions and I are members of the Prime Minister’s taskforce on modern slavery, which aims to do more to bring perpetrators to justice and support victims both here and overseas. The Crown Prosecution Service has recently announced an increase in prosecutions for modern slavery, and I will meet the DPP further to discuss how that good work can continue.

I welcome the fact that the number of prosecutions has gone up, I think by 27%. Is the Solicitor General having discussions about how we treat young people who are involved in county lines? Will they be treated as criminals, or as the victims of, in many cases, modern slavery?

I know the hon. Lady takes a keen interest in this issue through her all-party group and in other work, and she hits the nail on the head when it comes to the difficult decisions that are sometimes made. I assure her that the typology on county lines that the CPS published only a few months ago has a particular focus on such issues. There will be times when a decision to prosecute must be made, but many of the people involved—particularly young people—are victims who need support.

In Scotland the police are alarmed by the rise in reports of potential human trafficking offences, and those individuals and gangs do not stop at the border. What discussions is the Solicitor General having with his counterparts north of the border to ensure that there is a UK-wide approach to this issue?

As a border MP, my hon. Friend knows the issue acutely. In February 2016 the Directors of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales and for Northern Ireland, and indeed the Lord Advocate for Scotland, met and pledged their commitment to providing a whole-of-UK approach to human trafficking and slavery. As a result, quarterly meetings are held at official level between the jurisdictions, and there is a regular exchange of information and best practice to make sure we get it right.

The chain of trafficking offences is often complex and runs across several jurisdictions. How are we working with other countries to increase the number of prosecutions?

We place a heavy emphasis on international work, and we are currently working with 25 Europe-based inquiries. We have 30 prosecutors in other countries who focus on this type of work, as well as on other types of crime. Our commitment is clear.

It has been pointed out to me that the Attorney General and the Solicitor General would make a very good singing duo, although any performance would have to take place outside the Chamber. I hope the Attorney General enjoyed his debut at the Dispatch Box as much as I did.