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Attorney General

Volume 653: debated on Thursday 31 January 2019

The Attorney General was asked—

Money Laundering

1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in prosecuting money laundering. (908914)

The Crown Prosecution Service plays a central role in combating money laundering, terrorist financing and the pursuit of asset recovery within our criminal justice system. Dealing with illicit finance through the prosecution of money laundering offences remains a critical priority for our prosecuting agencies. Just last year, more than 1,400 convictions were sustained where it was the principal offence charged in the Crown Court.

It seems that the Government need to get an even firmer grip on the Serious Fraud Office and the Crown Prosecution Service. Does my right hon. and learned Friend have any plans to strengthen oversight in that way?

My hon. Friend must remember that the financial action taskforce in December carried out an evaluation of system responses to money laundering. Of the 60 countries assessed, the United Kingdom emerged first for having the most effective system in the world for combating money laundering. Set against that background, we can make improvements and I hope to make them through the governance changes that I am introducing. We are instituting a ministerial board, which I shall chair. We shall have a much stronger grip on information coming from the Crown Prosecution Service, and we hope to anticipate problems before they arise.

Will the Attorney General further outline how much money seized from criminal assets in the assets recovery scheme has been reinvested into community funds in the past year?

Last year, £80.1 million was recovered by the Crown Prosecution Service, but I am afraid that I am not in a position to help the hon. Gentleman with regards to the community funds. I can undertake to write to him with those details, and I hope that he will be satisfied with that.

Soldiers and Veterans: Protection from Prosecution

The Government are unstinting in their admiration and gratitude for the work of the armed forces. We expect the highest standards of our service personnel, and the overwhelming majority meet those expectations, serving with great honour and distinction. The Government are taking very seriously the concerns that have been expressed by this House about investigations and prosecutions of veterans in historical operations. The Secretary of State for Defence, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I are looking carefully at the measures available to us, and we shall be making announcements during the course of this year.

Does the Attorney General agree that we need urgently to derogate from the European convention on human rights? Apart from anything else, it is the right thing to do. It is also on page 41 of the Conservative party manifesto, and there is clearly overwhelming public support for protecting our soldiers and veterans from legal pursuit.

I can confirm that we shall give consideration to a derogation from the convention before future military operations commence. That will necessarily depend on the nature of the operation, and the circumstances and facts of the activities that we are contemplating, but it will now be a consideration that will be taken into account before any military operation.

The writ of the Attorney General runs large, but it does not extend to Northern Ireland in criminal matters, where he features as the Advocate General. Will he give a commitment today that any scheme that is brought forward to protect our service personnel extends to them, wherever they should live in this United Kingdom?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that confirmation. No area of the United Kingdom can be left out; plainly that would be wrong. As he knows, that does not mean that there may not be particular considerations peculiar to Northern Ireland that have to be taken into account, and I am in discussions with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about those considerations.

Is the Attorney General aware that servicemen of my age who served in Northern Ireland through the ’70s will be petrified about the fact that there is a letter about future prosecutions coming down the line, even though they were investigated decades ago? We need to move forwards so that this House decides whether our veterans are protected in the same way as it seems this House protects terrorists that were out there then.

As my right hon. Friend knows, I have the greatest respect for all those who have served in our armed forces. My own family were an armed forces family, and I am acutely anxious to resolve this question to the satisfaction of this House. The measures that we have in mind would not be peculiar to one area of the United Kingdom, would be comprehensive and, I hope, would give dignity, peace of mind and assurance to all those who have served in our armed forces. We are anxious to make announcements as soon as possible.

Domestic Abuse: Prosecution Rates

Dealing with domestic abuse is a top priority for the Government, and I regularly engage with the CPS on this subject. The CPS wants to ensure that every victim of domestic abuse has full confidence in the justice system. Only last month it unveiled a best practice model developed in partnership with the police and the Courts Service to help victims through the criminal justice process.

I thank the Minister for that answer. What success has the Crown Prosecution Service had in prosecuting controlling and coercive behaviour as a feature of domestic abuse?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Since we introduced the law on coercive control several years ago the number of charges continues to increase. In 2016-17, 309 charges were brought, but last year that trebled to 960.

One of the main barriers to victims of domestic abuse and rape coming forward is the fear of having to hand their entire lives and personal information over to the defence. What steps is the CPS taking to ensure that victims are reassured that disclosure is appropriate and proportionate, and that victims are not asked to sign away their privacy?

The hon. Lady raises a very important point. Several months ago, the Attorney General and I issued a new paper on disclosure, and that will be followed by revised guidelines this year. We are acutely conscious of the need to balance the interests of justice not just in favour of defendants but in favour of victims. A blanket approach to disclosure is not something we encourage; it will depend on the facts of the case. I am glad that the number of cases that are being dropped because of issues with victims continues to fall, and I think that is a sign of progress.

The latest figures published by the Home Office show that only 1.9% of recorded rapes are prosecuted. Baroness Newlove, the Victims’ Commissioner, said:

“I am often hearing from victims of sexual crime that their criminal justice journey is as harrowing as the crime itself. This is just not acceptable. I fear we are letting these victims down badly.”

She is right, isn’t she?

The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that only last week I met Baroness Newlove and discussed these very issues. It is vitally important that colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and across Government understand that the journey for victims in cases like this can be an extremely tough one. That is well understood. That is why the agencies are now working together to ease that journey. I do not pretend that the task is easy or that the job is anywhere near finished, but the commitment is there, and we will continue to work to support victims of rape.

I do not dispute the Solicitor General’s worthy intentions in this, but we have a situation where two in 100 reported rapes are reaching prosecution. It is a quite appalling statistic. First, he must acknowledge the impact that spending cuts have had on the ability to investigate these offences. Secondly, he should acknowledge that piecemeal change is no longer enough—the time has come for drastic action.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he must not forget that independent prosecutors have to apply evidential tests and it will not always be the case that complaints will merit a prosecution. I wholly reject his suggestion that expenditure cuts have resulted in a decrease in prosecutions. Expenditure is not an issue when it comes to the prosecution of offences, and never will be.

Knife Crime: Prosecution

4. What recent discussions he has had with the CPS on improving prosecution rates for knife crime. (908917)

I engage regularly with the CPS, and we recognise that this issue is a growing national priority. Prosecution rates have been rising year on year for knife crime. Between 2013-14 and 2017-18, there has been a 33% increase. The Offensive Weapons Bill now making its way through this House will tighten the law around the sale, delivery and possession of knives.

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend on not only talking to the CPS about changing the sentences on knife crime but actually taking action and going to the Court of Appeal to make sure that an unduly lenient sentence has been lengthened to three and a half years’ imprisonment, quite rightly. What action can he take to make sure that the courts understand their duty to imprison people who are guilty of knife crime?

My hon. Friend raises a serious London case, and as a London MP, he is a passionate campaigner against knife crime. I warmly welcome the decision of the Court of Appeal yesterday to increase the sentence in that case. Lord Justice Leveson, the president of the Queen’s bench division, was clear in his approach, stating:

“There can never be any excuse for carrying a weapon of the type this offender carried”

and that the courts must impose “substantial and effective” sentences on those convicted.

Internet Trolling: Prosecution Rates

5. What steps the CPS is taking to improve prosecution rates for offences related to internet trolling. (908918)

12. What steps the CPS is taking to improve prosecution rates for offences related to internet trolling. (908925)

I recognise that internet trolling can have devastating effects on victims, and where an offence has been committed, the CPS response will be robust. The number of prosecutions commenced for offences under the Communications Act 2003 and the Malicious Communications Act 1988 has increased by over 20% in the last three years, and last year the CPS published revised guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media.

We all know in this job how harrowing and tough trolling and online abuse can be. When I visit schools in my constituency, young people tell me that they not only experience a lot of online abuse but see it happening to people in jobs that they might aspire to and worry about the level of abuse they might face if they went into such jobs. What is being done to ensure that online abuse is given the serious treatment that other types of abuse is given, so that people can see that it will not be taken lightly?

The hon. Lady is right to point to the concern about the younger generation being disincentivised from coming forward, particularly into public service. That should worry us all as parliamentarians and legislators. I can reassure her that the CPS has worked hard to develop new guidance for prosecutors, which makes it clear that online abuse is just as bad as offline abuse; there is no distinction in law. Where communications amount to credible threats of violence, prosecutions will commence. I know that Members are concerned about the balance between freedom of expression and prosecutions, and I assure the hon. Lady that that matter is very much in my mind as we develop further guidelines to assist not only parliamentarians but everybody in public life.

On 8 January, the Petitions Committee produced its report, “Online abuse and the experience of disabled people”. Will the Solicitor General look at that report and ensure that every step is taken to prosecute cases of online abuse against disabled people?

The hon. Lady may know that I have a particular passion about combating disability hate crime. I have met disability organisations in her region—the wonderful north-east—and learned a lot from them about the importance of ensuring that they have the confidence to report crime. I have read the Petitions Committee report. It is excellent, and I am noting in particular the actions that the CPS needs to take.

Does the Solicitor General agree that, while robust action is needed through the courts and the CPS, there is also an enormous responsibility for those who hold public office and offices that command responsibility to call this sort of behaviour out?

My hon. Friend is right. There can be no moral relativism when it comes to abuse, whatever type it may be and from whatever quarter it comes.

Hunting Act: Prosecution Rates

6. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting offences under the Hunting Act 2004. (908919)

Each CPS area has a Crown prosecutor dedicated to act as a wildlife, rural and heritage crime co-ordinator, to ensure that the specialist knowledge needed to prosecute such offending is readily available. Co-ordinators work closely with specialist officers from local police forces and from the National Wildlife Crime Unit, to ensure a robust CPS response.

I am disappointed that I did not hear from the Attorney General, because I wanted to hear about his recent field visit to a hunt, where I am sure the law was perfectly observed. The Solicitor General will be aware that there have been many reports up and down the country over the Christmas period of transgressions of the law. The public expect the law to be enforced in full. Is it not time we strengthened the Hunting Act?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Law Officers do not condone or in any way consent to lawbreaking—that is clear. Where there is evidence of a breach of the Hunting Act and unlawfulness, that evidence will be used to prosecute.

Leaving the EU: Priorities

7. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the priorities for his Office. (908920)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the priorities for his Office. (908922)

In relation to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, my priority is to support the delivery of the Government’s objectives. That includes giving legal and constitutional advice within the Government on our international negotiations and treaty obligations, the programme of domestic legislation to implement the consequences of exit, and of course supporting preparations for future international co-operation between the law officers departments and with prosecution and other criminal justice officers.

I suppose we should congratulate the Attorney General on his appointment to the glorious new negotiating troika that is going to solve in the next two weeks all the problems that the Government have not been able to in the past two years. During that time, how open will he be with the House about the legal advice that he is providing so that we can make informed decisions about the new deal that is going to be negotiated—or will we have to keep dragging him kicking and screaming to the House through Humble Addresses and other procedures to get that information out of him?

I have already said to the House that in future, on matters of law that are particularly relevant to the House’s consideration, I and the Government will consider releasing advice that has been given on these questions. I will not give any guarantee in advance, but let me make it plain that I shall listen carefully to the House and, in so far as it is needed, I will endeavour to satisfy Members.

One of the matters that the Attorney General decided was a priority was to launch a case in the Supreme Court challenging the legal competence of the Scottish Parliament, which has just passed the Continuity Bill. Not only did the Government delay that by taking that action but they then mounted a retrospective power grab through the unelected House of Lords to remove from the elected Parliament of Scotland the power to pass legislation that it had already passed. What was the cost to the taxpayers of the United Kingdom of that Supreme Court case?

The Government won that case, as the hon. Gentleman quite knows. The truth is that it has gone back to the Scottish Parliament, and the system is working. It is the purpose of the referral system to delineate and demarcate the proper boundaries between the devolved Governments and Westminster. That is what the Supreme Court decided. As to the cost, I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman if he would like me to do so.

In December a ferry contract was awarded to Seaborne Freight without competitive tender, due to extreme urgency, but the Government have known for years about the possibility of no deal. Will he release the legal advice that permitted the Department for Transport to proceed under regulation 32?

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, that is not a subject within my ministerial responsibility. The legal advice inside any Department is a matter for that Department; it does not come automatically to the Attorney General. There is an important principle of confidentiality and privilege associated with legal advice, which I hope the House will not lose. The matter that he has raised is not a matter for me; it is a matter for the Secretary of State.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the most pressing practical priority for the prosecuting authorities is to secure continued access to the critical database systems available under the Eurojust criminal co-operation arrangements, and that that requires as an absolute priority achieving a deal to ensure continued data regulation alignment so that there can be lawful access to those databases?

As my hon. Friend well knows, the Government are keen to establish with the European Union the closest possible security partnership for precisely the reasons that he gives.

Can the Attorney General give a reassurance that EU citizens who live in this country on 29 March will have their rights protected, whether we have a deal or a no-deal?

If we find ourselves in the backstop, the withdrawal agreement allows the EU to make the decision whether our trade arrangements avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland. Would a simple, workable solution for both sides be to allow an independent body to make that decision?

Article 20 of the proposed Northern Ireland protocol allows already for either party to discuss and agree with the other that the backstop is no longer necessary, and that is arbitrable under the dispute resolution mechanism of the withdrawal agreement. I do not necessarily accept the characterisation that there is a veto. The European Union under the proposals would be bound by the duty of good faith and best endeavours, and it could not just decline to consider a reasonable measure put forward by the United Kingdom.

May I return the Attorney General’s attention to the question of Seaborne Freight? He, like me, will be well aware that if the Department for Transport has avoided competitive tendering under regulation 32 without a proper basis in law, it could face legal action. Has he been asked to advise on the matter, and how much money has been set aside for the contingency of court action concerning the potential illegality of the procurement process and any claim for damages?

The hon. and learned Lady, who is a lady of great distinction in the legal profession, knows quite well that I am bound by the Law Officers’ Convention. I realise why she is trying to tempt me to give fuller answers, but I cannot disclose either the fact or the substance of any advice that I may have given. As for her substantive question, I suggest that she address it to the Secretary of State.

Oversight of Solicitors

10. Whether he has had discussions with the Secretary of State for Justice on reforms to the oversight of solicitors. (908923)

I have had regular meetings with the Secretary of State for Justice, in which we have discussed a range of policy matters including regulation of the legal professions. Legal services in England and Wales are independently regulated in accordance with the framework set out in the Legal Services Act 2007. Solicitors are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which prosecutes solicitors and firms where necessary.

If the SRA cannot and will not compensate the EcoHouse investors, it is ripe for reform, is it not?

My right hon. Friend tempts me down a path leading to the SRA’s discretion with regard to compensation. I am grateful to him for raising an important issue that concerns many colleagues in the House. I think it best that we take these matters up not just with the Ministry of Justice, but with the SRA itself.

May I urge the Solicitor General to do more about solicitors up and down the country who are carrying on their business in a very strange and devious way? I have been talking to representatives of the insurance industry, and I understand that clusters of solicitors are making false claims relating to holiday insurance and whiplash. We know where those dodgy solicitors are, but the current regulation does not seem to be working. What is the Solicitor General going to do about it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. The Legal Services Board has currently drafted proposed new rules relating to the governance for regulators; the consultation closed last week, and new statutory guidance will be issued. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. Corrupt solicitors not only damage the reputation of the profession but raise insurance premiums, driving smaller firms out of business. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and his point is fully understood here.