The Attorney General was asked—
Legal Professionals: Pro Bono Work
May I start by acknowledging the work of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), my predecessor in this role? I wish him well in his new post in the Ministry of Justice.
I would also like to acknowledge the tremendous work that legal professionals up and down the country do for free every day to help people who are in need and require legal support. The Attorney General and I are the Government’s pro bono champions—I am delighted to take up that role. Earlier this month the Attorney General’s pro bono committee met and discussed how the Attorney General’s Office can help to raise awareness of pro bono work, and I am greatly looking forward to building on this work.
The sheer volume of legal advice and assistance that lawyers offer free of charge too often goes unremarked, but is remarkable. It rights wrongs, protects rights and strengthens the rule of law; it deserves our immense gratitude. Will my hon. and learned Friend join me in paying tribute to those lawyers who give up their time to offer support to others, in particular to victims of atrocities such as the Manchester Arena bombing?
My hon. Friend is a very well respected criminal barrister and has done a great amount of work here as a member of the Justice Committee. He is absolutely right to highlight the incredible work that lawyers undertake for free, which does go unrecognised. He is also right to highlight the Manchester attack. We are in the anniversary week of that terrible tragedy and my thoughts are with all those who have suffered. The Manchester Law Society did a call for support and over 100 firms and barristers offered free advice and representation.
I welcome my hon. and learned Friend to her new role and wish her every success.
As has already been said, pro bono law work is an important resource for all of us as constituency MPs. Given that fact, as well as the message we have heard that lots of pro bono work is being carried out, will my hon. and learned Friend outline what more can be done to encourage law firms and universities outside London to provide more pro bono work?
That is a good point, because students can play a critical role in giving support, and of course both London and the regions need to help and support those in need. In my role as a constituency MP, I was at the Anglia Law School law clinic only few weeks ago. It brings law firms in Cambridge together with those studying at the local university to help to support people.
I thank the Bar pro bono unit for its work advising constituents who have found themselves in some very difficult situations. The unit is being rebranded as Advocate, and it would be great if the Minister could support Pro Bono Week in November and encourage MPs and their caseworkers to make referrals as early as possible.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has mentioned the work of Advocate, which used to be called the Bar pro bono unit. As a barrister, I was pleased to volunteer for the unit. In fact, more than 3,500 barristers are now registered as volunteers for Advocate and, like my hon. Friend, I would encourage Members to refer cases to it. I do so as a constituency MP. I know that Advocate, among others, is involved in the planning of this year’s Pro Bono Week, which will commence on 4 November.
I welcome the Solicitor General to her new position. Solicitors and barristers in towns up and down the country can provide pro bono advice, as I did when I was in practice as a solicitor, only if the practices are there. There is real pressure on the provision of advice in desert areas, because private sector firms are going out of business. What is she going to do about this?
I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman also did pro bono work; he is to be commended for that. As he will know, the Ministry of Justice is carrying out a review of the market at the moment. There are some areas in which there are not as many law firms offering legal aid as there could be, but that review is already being undertaken.
I warmly welcome my hon. and learned Friend to her new position and wish her well. She will know that the importance of legal advice is a theme that occurs in Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera “Iolanthe”, in which my wife Anne-Louise and my two stepchildren Victoria and James will be singing principal roles with the Grim’s Dyke Opera this Sunday. Does my hon. and learned Friend recognise that the valuable and magnificent pro bono work done by lawyers is there as a supplement to properly funded legal advice—from public funds as well—and that the two go together? Does she agree that one is not a replacement for the other?
It is always a pleasure to hear from my hon. Friend, who is an excellent Chair of the Justice Committee. I wish Victoria and James every success on Sunday. He is absolutely right to highlight the fact that there are many elements to the legal profession. There is of course private work, as well as legal aid and the free service provided through the pro bono work that lawyers provide. We spend £1.6 billion every year on legal aid, and we are continuing to look at how we can best support people in need through legal aid.
CPS Engagement with Local Communities
The Attorney General’s Office has regular engagement with the Crown Prosecution Service, and we know that the issue of community engagement is of key importance to the CPS. In May 2018, it launched its inclusion and community engagement strategy in addition to the existing consultation groups and scrutiny panels, all of which are pivotal in building trust with all communities in relation to CPS decisions.
I welcome my hon. and learned Friend to her post. Can she give an example of community engagement in my local CPS area?
My hon. Friend’s constituency falls within the Merseyside and Cheshire CPS area, and the inclusion and community engagement manager there is Jennifer Friday. She manages an ambitious programme of community engagement that includes sessions in high schools and a community conversation with people with learning disabilities, and I commend her work. The local criminal justice board has set up a sub-group to focus on hate crime, which is chaired by the CPS and includes Sefton Council.
Does the Minister agree that local engagement with religious and minority groups helps to build public confidence in the criminal justice system?
It is absolutely vital that the CPS engages with all communities in the region where it operates. There is a variety of local engagement strategies, including through the local scrutiny boards, and I am aware that the local chief Crown prosecutor for the west midlands has specifically engaged with the Muslim community to help to build local relations there.
Having spoken to victims of crime and to police officers, I feel it would be hugely beneficial for the promotion of engagement and understanding of the CPS if it had the ability to explain charging decisions directly to the victims of crime. Does the Solicitor General agree, and how are we resourcing the CPS to do that work?
It is absolutely vital that the CPS talks to victims and understands both them and local communities. In fact, the CPS produced an inclusion and community engagement strategy in May 2018, which has been widely recommended. Hate crime and violence against women and girls strategy boards can discuss such issues locally.
I wish the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), well in his new role. Of course, I welcome the hon. and learned Lady to her new appointment.
One area in which community engagement by the Crown Prosecution Service is vital is the terrible crime of rape. The latest Home Office figures show that the proportion of reported rapes reaching prosecution is now at a pitiful 1.7%. In January, the proportion was 1.9%. Why does the Solicitor General think that an awful figure has got even worse in recent months?
Rape is an absolutely terrible crime, and those who suffer it need to be supported through the criminal justice system. I am pleased that the reporting figures for rape have gone up over the years, and that more people are feeling able to report rape. We have managed to improve those figures through the pilots that we have run in various regions, which are going to be rolled out. Conviction rates still need to go up, and we are looking at how to improve them.
That percentage was not for convictions, but for the proportion of rapes even reaching charging stage. The Law Officers are presiding over a situation in which more than 98% of reported rapes are not even getting to that stage. We desperately need action, so may I make some suggestions? Let us stop the cuts to the investigative capacity of the police and the CPS, let us get the balance on disclosure right, and let us invest properly in victim support. I say seriously to the Law Officers that the figures are appalling—they must get a grip.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, rape is one of the most difficult offences to prove, with cases often relying on say-so and the testimony of individuals—the evidence of two people. I recently met the Director of Public Prosecutions to discuss the issue, and he reiterated the importance of collecting evidence in these terrible crimes so that we can bring successful prosecutions.
Prosecution Rates: Electoral Fraud
The Crown Prosecution Service works closely with the police, including by providing early investigative advice, to consider any allegations of electoral fraud in accordance with the code of Crown prosecutors. The Crown Prosecution Service recognises the importance of protecting democracy, and all cases involving election offences are referred to specialist prosecutors within the Crown Prosecution Service’s special crime and counter-terrorism division.
Of 266 reported electoral fraud cases last year, only one resulted in a conviction. The Vote Leave campaign dropping its appeal is as good as its admitting the illegality and illegitimacy of the 2016 referendum result. When will electoral law breaking be treated as a serious crime? Will the Attorney General also ensure that there is a full, transparent, independent inquiry into the foreign funding of Nigel Farage’s new vehicle?
The hon. Lady is quite right that electoral fraud is serious. From whichever side it comes—a referendum campaign or a political party—it must be dealt with according to the law, and it is dealt with unflinchingly. We have an independent Electoral Commission that investigates electoral fraud, and it is right that the Government should allow the commission to be independent, as it must be. However, if a case is referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, it is dealt with precisely according to the code in the same way as any other offence. It is dealt with by trained specialist prosecutors, and a single point of contact in each police force is also trained in election offences. While there may be many allegations, those that are fit for prosecution will be prosecuted—I can give the hon. Lady that assurance.
I think that we all agree that electoral fraud should be rooted out and tackled, but the question is one of priorities. Many of us fail to understand why the Government appear obsessed with personation and individual electoral fraud, spending so much time and energy on a problem that is virtually non-existent, at a time when the Electoral Commission finds Vote Leave and other campaigns guilty of electoral fraud and is currently investigating the Brexit party. Is it not time that the Government reassessed their priorities and focused on the organised campaigns that try to thwart our procedures?
I cannot comment on any ongoing investigations that may be carried out, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, but the Electoral Commission, as he knows, is independent and is charged with responsibility for ensuring the integrity of elections. The commission has a full range of powers that it is able to use, and it takes its decisions with full independence.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that if any prima facie case of electoral fraud is referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, it will be dealt with with complete and utter impartiality, and will be prosecuted.
Order. Very briefly, the remaining questions.
Support for Parliamentarians (Intimidation and Harassment)
Everyone should be free to go about their business without facing abuse or harassment, and the Crown Prosecution Service recently published an information pack to help Members of this House and the other place to recognise possible criminal conduct and to report it to the police. Criminal offences committed against Members of this House imperil the democratic process and public service, and the Crown Prosecution Service is fully committed to pursuing prosecutions in these cases, wherever appropriate.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is important that colleagues and members of staff who think they have been abused or harassed come forward to report those cases so that we can get this exemplary system working here in Parliament?
I do agree, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. It is vital that everybody should have the courage and confidence to be able to come forward. The pack that was given to all Members of this House indicates how to report such cases and the process that will be followed, and that publication is a good guide, I hope, to the way in which both staff and Members should deal with the matter.
This is deepest complacency. These are supposed to be topical questions. Lord Neuberger has said that the justice system is in crisis because of legal aid cuts. Does the Attorney General accept that the Crown Prosecution Service is so under-resourced that it cannot do its job?
A man drove into a bus queue in my constituency, killing a little girl and injuring two other people. The CPS did not even charge him with careless driving. Something is deeply wrong with the CPS, and the Attorney General should wake up to it.
I admire the hon. Gentleman’s passion, and I am sure it is entirely well grounded and sincere. The Crown Prosecution Service applies the code of conduct for prosecutors. In those circumstances, it is completely right that it does so impartially. I do not know the case to which he refers but, if he writes to me, I am certainly willing to look into it. Question 6 is on the abuse and harassment of Members of this House and the other place, and I hope we can both agree that any such abuse and harassment is deplorable and contemptible, and is an attack upon democracy.
Finally, and briefly, Mr Jim Cunningham.
Prosecution of Sexual Offences (Criminal Gangs)
The offences of gang-related rape and other sexual violence, including child sexual exploitation, are dealt with by specially trained rape and serious sexual offences lawyers who work closely with police investigators to build strong cases. The training is regularly updated, as is the legal guidance, to support the effectiveness of rape and sexual offences prosecutions, including building awareness of victims and the issues connected with victims in the context of gang-related violence.
I draw the Attorney General’s attention to the fact that organisations such as the Coventry rape and sexual abuse centre are struggling to be funded. These organisations play a major role in advising victims. When will these organisations be properly funded, and will he meet me to discuss it?
Whether the hon. Gentleman is referring to organisations inside or outside the Crown Prosecution Service, I am very happy to meet him if the matter is within my sphere of responsibility. I can assure him that the Government are now reviewing why there is a problem of reported cases of rape going up and the number of convictions and prosecutions going down. We are concerned to tackle it, which is why we are seeking to get to the bottom of the factors that affect it, but they are complicated factors. It is not as easy as saying, “Well, the prosecutors are not prosecuting enough.” There are many factors affecting this question, and we all need to come together to inquire into it and to reach the right solutions.