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House of Commons Hansard
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13 December 2018
Volume 651

The Attorney General was asked—

Contempt of Court

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1. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effectiveness of contempt of court proceedings. [908197]

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The institution of court proceedings for contempt is by me in relation to each case on its own merits. I institute proceedings when there is sufficient evidence, and when I, as guardian of the public interest, decide that it is in the public interest to do so.

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Contempt of court proceedings are very important to ensuring fair trials and the rule of law. Contempt of Parliament proceedings have been crucial in enabling the House to have the information to which it was entitled. Is the Attorney General not ashamed that his Ministers were found to be in contempt?

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It is always a serious matter for any Minister to find himself at odds with the House, particularly over an important question of constitutional principle. On reflection, and the opinion of the House having been tested twice, the Government took the decision to disclose the advice, but I must stress to the hon. Lady that successive Governments have defended that principle robustly. I have a list of very eloquent articulations of it by Opposition Members who have defended it against demands for the disclosure of confidential advice. It is an important principle, and I hope that the House will look again at the procedures relating to the motion for a return.

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May I perhaps return to the question? [Interruption.] Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is a real need to revisit the standard directions that judges give to juries in relation to the use of social media? Generally judges are well alert to the issue, but, as we know, there have been instances in which convictions have had to be set aside because juries have, in effect, researched the case outside the jury room using social media.

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Order. For the avoidance of doubt, the previous exchanges were entirely orderly, and I would have ruled otherwise if they were not. That is the position, which, frankly, the Solicitor General ought to take to heart, and upon which he might usefully reflect. I will be the arbiter of what is orderly, not the hon. and learned Gentleman.

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The impact of social media on the integrity and fairness of the trial process is obviously of considerable importance, and we do need to grapple with it. As he knows, we have a call for evidence on social media, and I am currently studying the responses to it.

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On the subject of contempt, the Attorney General was meant to disclose the full and final legal advice on the withdrawal agreement. What was actually disclosed was a letter to the Prime Minister dated 13 November exclusively on the legal effect of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. Is the Attorney General seriously saying he did not advise on the remainder of the withdrawal agreement?

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, his party colleague the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) refined and defined the request, which was for the final and full advice that was given to the Cabinet, and that is what he has had.

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The letter refers simply to the legal effect of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, but let me then ask the Attorney General this: the Prime Minister said last night on the steps of Downing Street that she is seeking “legal and political changes” to the withdrawal agreement and the backstop, so as a matter of honour if nothing else, if the Attorney General advises on any changes or additions that the Prime Minister brings back, will he disclose that advice to this House?

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, the principle of the convention applies and must be upheld. Of course the Government will consider very carefully, particularly in the light of the House’s expressed wish for assistance on these matters, what assistance they and I as Attorney General can give.

Legal Advice: Public Disclosure

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2. When his Department’s policy on public disclosure of legal advice given by Law Officers to the Government was implemented. [908198]

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As noted in “Erskine May”, it is a long-standing convention observed by successive Governments that neither the fact nor the substance of Law Officers’ advice is disclosed outside the Government without their authority. That authority is very rarely sought or given.

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Given that recent decisions of the House might mean a return to Tony Blair-style sofa Government, does my right hon. and learned Friend think the Humble Address procedure needs revisiting?

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Of course, the corrosive effect of the disclosure of confidential advice is that in future Attorneys General will not be able, without risking and fearing its publication, to give frank and robust advice to the Cabinet or the Prime Minister when it is needed, with the point and emphasis that might be needed at that particular time. The risk if it is published is that it is taken out of context, parts of it are seized and plucked and dwelt upon, and the particular moment and context of the advice is ignored. I do think we need to look very carefully at the procedures of the House in this regard while paying due respect to the legitimate desire of the House to have all of the information that it requires.

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I think we all understand what the Attorney General’s preferences are in this matter. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), he said that the advice in his letter to the Prime Minister was full and final. It is credible that it is the final legal advice, but it is not credible that it is the full legal advice. Is that seriously what the Attorney General wants us to believe?

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The request of the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) was for the final and full advice. As I understand it—I read what he said in Hansardhe requested all the final advice. In other words, he requested that it should not be summarised, and it was not. The House had all the final advice given to the Cabinet.

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Will the Attorney General further outline when the legal opinion on changes to the withdrawal agreement sought by the Prime Minister will be released, to clarify any change in his legal advice?

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As I have just said, I will of course consider what assistance the House might require. Indeed, I shall listen carefully to the House on any changes that are introduced to the withdrawal agreement and on what the Government should do about publishing legal opinion on it.

Leaving the EU: Human Rights

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3. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the protection of human rights. [908200]

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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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I am proud to say that the Scottish Government announced plans this week to introduce a new statutory human rights framework across Scotland. That will help to ensure that Brexit does not lead to an erosion of human rights in Scotland, while enshrining rights already included in the United Nations treaties. Will the Attorney General join me in welcoming this progressive step? Will he also confirm what measures he will be recommending to his own Cabinet colleagues to ensure that human rights are protected in the event of Brexit?

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I am always interested to see the measures that are being introduced in the Scottish legal system, because Scotland has a sophisticated and highly effective administration of justice for which I have the greatest respect. Indeed, we can learn a good deal from Scotland in that regard; the same applies to both traditions on both sides of the border. In England and Wales, we are fully committed to the human rights framework of the European convention on human rights, and we have a proud common law tradition of defending those rights. I would expect that common law tradition to continue to evolve, and I would expect that the courts of this country, freed from the European Union, will start to develop their own jurisprudence, making even more effective the protection of those rights. However, I will look at what the hon. Lady has spoken of today with the greatest interest.

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In the hurly-burly of the Brexit debate, there are a number of things to be concerned about. However, this country is very much the creator, cherisher and nurturer of human rights, and we have a proud record in that area both domestically and in leading on the international stage. Does my right hon. and learned Friend therefore agree that this is one area of public policy that Brexit should not create any anxiety about?

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I quite agree with my hon. Friend. This country was at the forefront of the development of civil liberties and human rights. We have a robust, fiercely independent judiciary, and we have an effective legal profession on which the vindication of those rights often depends. We should be very proud indeed of the tradition that we have inherited.

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The Human Rights Act 1998 is one of Labour’s proudest achievements in government, and we will fight to protect the rights and protections that it affords. I noticed that the Attorney General did not mention that in his answer to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). Will he join us in making a commitment to preserving the Human Rights Act?

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It would be unwise for me to think that any Act of Parliament could not benefit from review and subsequent improvement as time goes on, but I can assure the hon. Lady that this Government—and, I am sure, successive Governments—will be wedded to both the rule of law and human rights in this country.

Article 50: European Court of Justice Decision

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4. What implications the decision by the European Court of Justice on the revocability of article 50 has for his legal advice to the Government. [908202]

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9. What implications the decision by the European Court of Justice on the revocability of article 50 has for his legal advice to the Government. [908207]

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The decision of the European Court of Justice clarifies a question of EU law, and it does not in any way change the Government’s policy. The Government’s firm and long-standing policy is that we will not revoke the article 50 notice. The position has not changed and, as is well known, the case will now revert to the Scottish courts for the final decision.

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Will the Attorney General take this opportunity to confirm that he advised the Prime Minister that the ECJ’s ruling means that voting against her deal does not automatically mean a no-deal Brexit, and that revoking the article 50 notice and remaining in the EU under current terms and conditions is a third option?

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The Government’s policy is that we do not intend to revoke article 50. We intend to leave the European Union on 29 March, and the fact or otherwise of the irrevocability of article 50 is wholly irrelevant to that question. The truth, however, is that the giving of notice under article 50 would not just be an easy matter of pressing a button and the revocation taking effect.

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Does the Attorney General believe that legislation would be required to revoke the article 50 notice, or could it be done by a simple vote in this House?

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That matter is under review. Let me say clearly that the question of what legal route would be required to trigger the process has not been considered at any length because there is no intention of doing so.

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The Government fought this case tooth and nail through the Scottish courts and in Luxembourg. Will the Attorney General tell us why the Government were so desperate to prevent Members of Parliament and the public from knowing that article 50 could be unilaterally revoked and that we could stay in the European Union on the same terms and conditions that we currently enjoy? Will he also answer a question that Cabinet Ministers have so far failed to answer? How much taxpayers’ money was spent trying to keep this House and the public in the dark?

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As the hon. and learned Lady knows, the Government’s position throughout was that the case involved a hypothetical question. It does raise an important matter of constitutional principle as to whether courts should be able to be seized of issues under live debate in Parliament, when Parliament does not ask for an opinion, simply in order to inform debate. The Government took the view that the matter was hypothetical—we still do—but the truth of the matter is that the ECJ has ruled and we are where we are.

Economic Crime

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5. What support he is providing to the (a) Crown Prosecution Service and (b) Serious Fraud Office to tackle economic crime. [908203]

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6. What support he is providing to the (a) Crown Prosecution Service and (b) Serious Fraud Office to tackle economic crime. [908204]

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The Government are committed to tackling economic crime, and we know that that requires a multi-agency response. That is why both the SFO and the CPS play their parts alongside others, including through their support for the new multi-agency National Economic Crime Centre.

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What assessment has been made of the UK’s ability to tackle money laundering?

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My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue, and I was glad to see the recent financial action taskforce report, which reflected substantial progress and referred to the world-leading role that the UK plays in the fight against illicit finance, particularly the risk of money laundering.

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Nothing annoys the constituents of Taunton Deane more than people getting away with things they should not, so will my hon. and learned Friend outline some further detail on how we are cracking down on money laundering? It is a priority, and the Government have promised to tackle it.

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My hon. Friend will be glad to note the introduction of unexplained wealth orders following the Criminal Finances Act 2017. That is already sending a clear message to those who seek to use the UK to wash their illegal proceeds that we will track them down, ask the right questions and conduct confiscations. Using Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 powers, the Government have recovered more criminal assets than ever before, with £1.6 billion taken from wrongdoers between April 2010 and March 2018.

Crown Prosecution Service: Performance

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7. What comparative assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the CPS’s recent prosecution performance in (a) Northamptonshire and (b) England. [908205]

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CPS performance in Northamptonshire is above the national rate in several areas. The latest figures for the first quarter of 2018-19 show that the conviction rate for Northamptonshire magistrates courts was 85.7%, which is above the national rate of 84.8%. Figures also show lower hearing numbers per guilty plea case than the national rate, which reflects the fact that the CPS is putting cases together efficiently.

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I thank the Crown Prosecution Service for its work in Northamptonshire. Which aspects of its work does the Solicitor General think are in most need of improvement?

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The CPS in Northamptonshire and the east midlands, like in all other regions, acknowledges that it should never rest on any laurels it might gather. I urge my hon. Friend to meet the chief Crown prosecutors and staff to focus on particular areas where he thinks the CPS in Northamptonshire and the east midlands needs to make progress. Recent quarterly and monthly figures show that in many areas, such as burglary, it has been above average, but I am sure it would welcome his constructive input.

Corrosive Substances: Prosecutions

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8. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting crimes involving corrosive substances. [908206]

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Corrosive substance attacks are unacceptable. There is no place in society for these horrendous crimes. Last month, the CPS successfully secured the conviction of nine men for carrying out a violent attack in which a corrosive substance was squirted at bystanders who tried to stop an assault in the street.

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What account is taken of gangs in this context?

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My right hon. Friend is right to raise the sad connection with gang offending. Sadly, corrosive substances are sometimes used as weapons by gangs in retribution and as a means of enforcement. The CPS guidance identifies that phenomenon and encourages prosecutors to apply for criminal behaviour orders to prevent such gang-related offending.

Royal Albert Hall

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10. If he will support the Charity Commission’s request to refer the Royal Albert Hall to the charity tribunal. [908208]

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Earlier this year, the Charity Commission wrote to the former Attorney General requesting consent to refer five questions to the first-tier tribunal concerning the registered charity that runs the Royal Albert Hall. Although the Charity Commission has the power to refer questions to the tribunal, it may only do so with the consent of the Attorney General, as set out in section 325 of the Charities Act 2011.

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The Attorney General promised that he would make a decision on this matter by the end of the autumn. I am sure we are now in winter, so that decision is overdue. The majority of the Royal Albert Hall’s ruling body own a quarter of all the seats. Those seats are valued at up to £25 million, and they are allowed to sell tickets for the seats on the secondary market, making huge profits. Does the Attorney General not consider that a conflict of interest, and will he allow the Charity Commission to refer it to the tribunal?

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The hon. Lady has identified the core of the concern in this case. Before assessing whether I or the Attorney General should consent to the Charity Commission’s request, we invited both the corporation of the Royal Albert Hall and the Charity Commission to make further representations. We have received those representations, and we are in the process of considering them with a view to issuing a decision in due course.