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Attorney General

Volume 648: debated on Thursday 1 November 2018

The Attorney General was asked—

Leaving the EU: Rights of EU Citizens

1. Whether he has provided the Prime Minister with legal advice on the rights of EU citizens after the UK has left the EU. (907420)

5. Whether he has provided the Prime Minister with legal advice on the rights of EU citizens after the UK has left the EU. (907425)

9. Whether he has provided the Prime Minister with legal advice on the rights of EU citizens after the UK has left the EU. (907429)

As the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) will know, the Law Officers convention prevents me from disclosing whether I have given advice—and, if so, the content of that advice—on this or any other subject.

The Prime Minister said that EU citizens’ rights will be unilaterally respected. Does the Attorney General agree that that statement does not provide sufficient legal guarantees in the case of no deal and that the best way to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is the ring-fencing that has already been agreed in the draft withdrawal agreement?

The Prime Minister has indeed guaranteed the rights of those living here who are citizens of the EU. Those guarantees will be fair, generous and comprehensive. The Government are working on the detail now.

Earlier this week, the Immigration Minister appeared before the Home Affairs Committee and was questioned about the rights of EU citizens in the event of no deal. Can the Attorney General confirm whether it is true that in the event of no deal, EU citizens who have not applied for settled status will find it impossible to distinguish themselves from new EU arrivals?

In the event of no deal, is there any legal reason why citizens who have EU settled status could not have the same rights to vote in local elections as EU citizens have at the moment?

Again, the hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me, but that is a matter that I cannot disclose, because that would be to disclose the advice that I give to the Government.

The Attorney General has been rather reticent in his replies. Would he recommend that hon. Members watch the video of him at the Conservative party conference, as that would answer many questions? [Interruption.]

It is a question that warrants an answer, but more particularly, if the Attorney General does get to his feet, we shall enjoy more of his baritone.

I am most obliged, Mr Speaker. I am afraid that I did not quite catch my hon. Friend’s question, but if it referred to me in the video, I think that I am best taking the fifth amendment.

Can the Attorney General confirm that EU citizens should have no concerns about their legal rights, especially given the Prime Minister’s commitment that they will be guaranteed in all circumstances?

The Government are currently in dialogue with all countries where EU citizens are living. The Government are making certain that the case is being made to those Governments for reciprocity, but this Government will none the less, whatever the position, ensure that those living in this country from the European Union are treated fairly and generously. That is what this country would expect, and it is consistent with the character of the people of this country. Their rights will be protected and guaranteed.

The Foreign Secretary yesterday told the Foreign Affairs Committee that the Foreign Office is doing work on what will happen if UK citizens are trapped after Brexit in other parts of Europe because there are no flights. Can the Attorney General tell us how many people that will affect and which circle of hell they will be in?

I am not able to give the hon. Gentleman that detail. It is not my sphere of ministerial responsibility. Much as I would like to answer for every aspect and part of the Government, I cannot answer that question, but if he wishes an answer, I will write to him about it.

Order. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is not being asked by anybody else to resign. That is not going to happen.

Does the Attorney General agree that EU citizens can take great comfort from the clear commitments that have been given in the case of no deal and that they should therefore ignore the scaremongering from the separatists on the Opposition Benches?

I quite understand why, at a time of national uncertainty, those affected by this situation might be worried, but let me say from the Dispatch Box on behalf of the Government that they should not worry. The fact is that their rights will be protected. This Government are determined and committed to that.

Despite that answer, is it not the case that the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 only copies EU law until the moment that the UK Government decide to adopt different provisions, which, as far as immigration issues are concerned, is likely to be soon after Brexit? Does the Attorney General agree that that would leave EU citizens in a precarious legal position, especially without any agreements regarding pensions, social security aggregation and access to healthcare?

The arrangements under the withdrawal agreement as so far agreed would provide for the comprehensive protection of all the rights of EU citizens, on both pensions and social security.

Exploitation of Vulnerable People

2. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting crimes involving the exploitation of vulnerable people. (907421)

The Crown Prosecution Service has had considerable success in prosecuting cases involving the exploitation of vulnerable people by gangs. The number of offences charged and prosecuted under trafficking and slavery legislation has risen year on year to 340 last year, and last month we saw the successful prosecution of Zakaria Mohammed, who is believed to be the first person to be jailed under modern slavery laws in respect of the exploitation of children.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Does he agree that the use of some of the youngest and most vulnerable people in our society for county lines drugs trafficking is a particularly pernicious offence? What is the CPS doing to crack down on that activity?

My hon. Friend is right to focus on the menace of organised crime and county lines. The CPS has developed an approach to county lines, particularly when it comes to the investigation and prosecution of offences involving vulnerable people—in other words, how to treat them and whether they should be treated as victims or defendants.

The anti-slavery charity Hope for Justice has said that two thirds of UK modern slavery victims are in the waste industry. The Environment Agency is training its staff to spot this exploitation. What liaison is the CPS having with the Environment Agency on this matter?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. The waste industry, car cleaning and such activities are clearly a focus for this type of unlawful behaviour. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service are indeed working with other agencies, but I take the particular point she makes and I will re-emphasise it to the CPS.

Will my hon. and learned Friend tell the House what the CPS is doing to support and protect vulnerable people who have been the victims of crime in order to secure their valuable evidence?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the victims. I have mentioned the decision to be made about the vulnerable victims of human trafficking. We have a particular mechanism that we use to protect the position of people who might otherwise be in the country unlawfully and to give them support so an informed decision can be made about their involvement in the process. I am confident that the CPS is working very hard always to improve its approach to victims.

The number of rapes reported has more than doubled since 2013-14, yet the Crown Prosecution Service’s “Violence against Women and Girls Report 2017-18” highlights a 23.1% fall in the number of defendants charged with rape compared with the previous year. Why does the Solicitor General think this has happened?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. Since those figures have been obtained, I and others have been working very hard to establish what the often complex reasons for them are. Sadly, I think that a lot of them are long-standing ones. What is sometimes unattractively described as the rate of attrition, as well as the experience of victims in this service, is still something that needs to be dealt with fully. That involves not just the CPS end of it, but the very early stages of the investigation. I assure him that every effort is being made to try to close that gap in a meaningful sense.

I hear the Solicitor General’s words, but clearly actions are necessary, too. This is a deep concern. I am sure that he will have seen the recent story in The Guardian newspaper that staff at the Crown Prosecution Service have been told:

“If we took…weak cases out of the system, our conviction rate goes up to 61%.”

Clearly, decisions to prosecute are subject, under the code for Crown prosecutors, as the Solicitor General knows, to the evidential test and the public interest test, not to some kind of arbitrary decision to get the figures up. Has that been said, and if it has been said, what action is he going take?

I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that any suggestion that there should be an artificial target that trumps the tried and tested code for prosecutors would be wholly wrong. I will absolutely make sure myself, as will others within the CPS, that such observations—if, indeed, they have been made—are ones that carry no weight whatsoever.

CPS 2020 Strategy

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the implementation of the CPS 2020 strategy. (907422)

The strategic objectives of the Crown Prosecution Service are always reviewed in my meetings with the Director of Public Prosecutions. I am pleased to see that progress has been made by the CPS in many areas in fulfilling those objectives.

May I take this opportunity to welcome the new and incoming Director of Public Prosecutions, Max Hill? He is a very experienced member of the Bar—a man who has prosecuted successfully in many cases—and I am expecting that he will lead the service to new strengths. At the same time, may I put on the record today the gratitude that I feel and the public should feel to Alison Saunders, the outgoing director? She has been a decent and honourable public servant. She has served the CPS for 30 years, including five years as its leader. She has left the CPS in a condition where, in many areas, she has achieved notable success. I wish her well, and I hope that the whole House will wish her well, in her future endeavours.

I am sure that the Attorney General agrees with me that nobody needs an effective CPS more than the victims of crime. Will he join me in welcoming the appointment of the new chief inspector of the CPS, and will he reassure me that the recently published victims strategy will sit at the heart of the CPS 2020 strategy so that the victims and witnesses of crime get the care and respect they deserve?

I entirely confirm that. Victims are at the heart of everything that the CPS should be—and is—doing, and I agree with my hon. Friend about the appointment of Mr McGinty. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley (Robert Neill), who chairs the Justice Committee, for confirming that appointment, and I expect the appointment of Mr McGinty to lend considerable value as we move forward with important reforms in the governance of the CPS.

If the Attorney General is to refer to his hon. Friend, may I gently say that to exclude Chislehurst might cause some offence to the residents thereof?

The CPS has lost more than 400 prosecutors due to cuts since 2010. Is that why the outgoing director of the CPS says that our criminal justice system is “creaking”?

I noted carefully the DPP’s concerns on that matter, but the performance and conviction rates of the CPS are the highest they have been in many years, and therefore they show no sign that it is creaking as a consequence of manpower. I think that the DPP was referring to a real challenge that we face, which is the increasing volume of evidence—particularly digital evidence from smartphones and computers—that is placing a real strain on both the police and the CPS. I shall be tackling that shortly in the review I am publishing on disclosure.

10. In taking forward prosecutions for hate crimes, will the Attorney General encourage the CPS to work with the Community Security Trust, which has great expertise in combating antisemitism? (907430)

That is an excellent suggestion, and I shall look at it extremely carefully. It sounds like something we need to take forward.

Is the Attorney General aware that a cross-party group of MPs has recently been told by senior police sources that the Crown Prosecution Service has not got the capacity to take on new cases involving dreadful crimes against children and that men who they know have committed such dreadful offences are not being pursued because the CPS does not have the resources? That is a very serious worry.

If that were true, I would share the hon. Gentleman’s profound concern. I will look into the matter as a consequence of his having raised it this morning.

May I, and all residents of Bromley and Chislehurst, welcome and endorse the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend about Mr Hill QC—a barrister of the very highest standing—Alison Saunders and Mr McGinty, who greatly impressed our Committee with his rigour as inspector? The Attorney General referred to proposals to reform the governance of the Crown Prosecution Service, and when we investigated the issue of disclosure, there was some concern about the potential ambiguity in how the role of superintendence over the CPS works. Will the Attorney General give us his thoughts on how that issue might be strengthened and clarified?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and as he knows, I am currently considering how further detail and structure could be given to the statutory superintendence role. It is important that in that role I ensure—in so far as it is appropriate to do so and while protecting the fierce independence of prosecutorial decisions that the CPS rightly shows—that I am able to understand more clearly how matters are developing, for example, in connection with disclosure. I am therefore considering structural changes to the governance arrangements, and they will be announced in due course.

Domestic Abuse Victims

4. What steps he is taking with the CPS and Cabinet colleagues to improve the effectiveness of the criminal justice system for victims of domestic abuse. (907424)

Tackling domestic abuse is a top priority for this Government, and we are committed to securing justice for all victims. We have seen improved conviction rates—in 2017-18, the conviction rate for domestic abuse cases increased to 76.4%, which is the highest rate ever recorded.

In June 2012, Eystna Blunnie, a 20-year-old pregnant young lady was brutally kicked to death by her ex-fiancé, Tony McLernon, two days before her due date in Harlow. She sadly died in hospital and doctors were unable to save the baby. Despite McLernon’s death threats prior to the attack, he was not charged, and police assessed Eystna as being at “medium-risk” of domestic abuse. What changes has the Crown Prosecution Service made in how it decides to bring charges in cases of domestic violence, and what specialist training is given to CPS solicitors to deal with cases of domestic abuse and violence against women?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend and to the family of the victim for their dignity in the face of such tragedy. Steps have indeed been taken as the result of that case and others, for example: the existence of a victims’ right to review policy on prosecution decisions; the use of local scrutiny and inclusions panels to consider violence against women and girls cases; and the new offence of coercive control, which can capture cumulative abusive behaviour by one partner against another.

Prosecuting cases of domestic violence is only possible if the police have sufficient officers and resources, so what conversations did the Solicitor General or Attorney General have with the Chancellor about police funding and were they satisfied with the result?

The hon. Lady knows police funding is a question for an announcement in December and the forthcoming spending review next year. I reassure her that the number of flagged referrals on domestic abuse from the police is remaining steady at about 110,000 in the past two years. As I have said, the number and rate of prosecutions continues to rise. We have seen a rise of over 50% in domestic abuse prosecutions in the past 10 years.

Terrorism Prosecutions

6. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase the rate of successful prosecutions for terrorism. (907426)

The counter-terrorism division of the Crown Prosecution Service is one of the great successes of that organisation. It has an excellent reputation both at home and abroad. In its recent work, it has doubled in size and doubled the number of convictions. The CPS works closely with police and partners to help to implement the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy.

I thank the Attorney General for that answer. As a member of the Home Affairs Committee, I understand that there are 500 live operations concerning 3,000 individuals of interest and a further 20,000 individuals who have been investigated under terrorism-related incidents. Can the Attorney General clarify and confirm that the CPS has adequate resources and the expertise to deal with these matters effectively?

I meet the Director of Public Prosecutions regularly, and counter-terrorism is one of those things upon which we focus most closely. I have also met the head of the terrorism division, Deborah Walsh. This is a well-led, well-resourced division. Its prosecution and conviction rate is of the highest in the CPS. I am confident that it has the resources, and if it needs more, we will find them. This is a national priority.

To address terrorism and paramilitarism, we have to remove the money. What is being done to remove the financial criminal empires that finance terrorism and paramilitarism?

The Crown Prosecution Service this year recovered between £80 million and £100 million of illicit assets. Organised crime and the illicit financing of terrorism is one of the Government’s priorities. It is being co-ordinated by the National Crime Agency. It is being met with a range of new tools, including unexplained wealth orders, which we will be using as hard and as impactfully as we can in future months.

Proceeds of Crime Act 2002

8. What plans he has to undertake a review of the effectiveness of prosecutions under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. (907428)

Dealing with illicit finance through the prosecution of money laundering offences is a priority for the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office. Prosecutors have not identified any specific concerns regarding the effectiveness of prosecutions under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. We continue to use the Act, as it has evolved, to good effect.

I have a constituent who has been convicted, I believe wrongly, for fraud. Despite the prosecution accepting that he made no financial gain whatever from the allegations, the SFO went after him and his wife, who is entirely unconnected. Does the Solicitor General think that is fair and what possible avenues for redress do I have for my constituents?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the case. It would be invidious of me to comment on a particular case. I will simply say that there are different mechanisms within the Act that allow the pursuance of criminal proceeds. It might well be that in that case another mechanism is being used, but I will be happy to look at it further and write to him.

Royal Assent

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:

Rating (Property in Common Occupation) and Council Tax (Empty Dwellings) Act 2018

Non-Domestic Rating (Nursery Grounds) Act 2018

Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Act 2018

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018

Middle Level Act 2018.