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Attorney General

Volume 671: debated on Thursday 13 February 2020

The Attorney General was asked—

Female Genital Mutilation: Prosecutions

1. What steps the CPS is taking to improve the rate of prosecution of people responsible for female genital mutilation. (900796)

4. What steps the CPS is taking to improve the rate of prosecution of people responsible for female genital mutilation. (900800)

The Crown Prosecution Service is determined to bring those responsible for female genital mutilation to justice. These are complex cases, usually involving very young and vulnerable victims. When expert medical evidence confirms that an offence has been committed, CPS prosecutors work closely with the police from the outset to build robust cases. This Government regard FGM as a serious criminal offence of child abuse, and we are committed to tackling this appalling crime.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. In Nottingham, we are really proud to be the first community in the country to declare ourselves a zero-tolerance area for FGM, but we cannot do this alone. We need other parts of the system to work, too, so can the Minister assure me and the campaigners in my community that the Crown Prosecution Service is adequately resourced to do all the good things that he has just described and that it is focused on doing them as a priority?

I commend the hon. Gentleman and the city of Nottingham for what they are doing in this area. I have been told that piloting and trialling are taking place in some Nottingham schools. The CPS is working very hard to fight the scourge of female genital mutilation. We have lead FGM prosecutors in each CPS area, and there is a stakeholder group for so-called honour-based abuse and forced marriage, as well as FGM. That met twice in 2019, and it is already helping to improve investigation and prosecution performance.

The lack of services to support the victims of female genital mutilation is often seen as a reason why so many cases are left unreported. What effect does the Attorney General—whoever that might be—think the cuts to the Crown Prosecution Service have had on the reporting of FGM cases?

I am pleased to say that £85 million has just been allocated by this Government to the Crown Prosecution Service. That enormous sum has been very well received. The reality is that FGM is a complex criminal offence. It is difficult to prosecute, but when these matters are made the subject of a complaint, every effort is made to gold-standard the process to make proceeding as easy as possible. I say again that the joint police-CPS taskforce—the stakeholder group—was established in order to make progress across this range of areas, including pre-prosecution.

My hon. Friend has spoken a lot about FGM in the UK, but does he agree that a lot of the problems come when children go abroad? At the moment, the Gambian Government are rewriting their constitution and there is a question mark as to whether they will maintain the clause banning all forms of FGM. Will he reach out to his opposite number in Gambia, through the Foreign Office, and support them in drafting a constitution that is appropriate in this area? Will he also support the work that people such as Nimco Ali are doing to ensure that our voice and the voices of women around the world are heard?

Nimco Ali is doing some great work in this area. We will liaise with the Foreign Office, where appropriate, to offer our views. I can also say that the point my hon. Friend makes has a tendency to raise jurisdictional issues, which is one of the points of complexity that we have in prosecuting these cases. However, every effort is—rightly so—being made to tackle this appalling crime.

Domestic Violence: Prosecutions

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting cases involving domestic violence. (900798)

Domestic abuse offences are horrific crimes that can have long-lasting traumatic effects on victims. It is of the utmost importance that victims are provided with robust protection to protect them from repeat offending. The Crown Prosecution Service is committed to prosecuting these crimes and ensuring victims are supported. That is why the CPS led the implementation of a national domestic abuse best practice framework for magistrates court cases in 2019. The framework provides a holistic approach, going further than the criminal justice system and ensuring consistent good practice by all agencies.

Nearly three quarters of a million domestic abuse-related cases were recorded in total—a rise of almost a quarter on the previous year. What is the Attorney General doing to combat that and to ensure that many more cases are prosecuted?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue. In 2007-08, offences involving violence against women and girls accounted for 7.1% of CPS case load. The figure is now 17%, but I very much accept that more work needs to be done. There has been a rise of over 8% in prosecutions for crimes of violence against women and girls, and the conviction rate has risen—it is now 78.2%. However, I agree that more needs to be done, and it will be.

In the year to March 2019, which is the last year for which we have a full set of statistics, the number of domestic abuse incidents and crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales increased by over 118,000 on the previous year. However, over the same period, police referrals to the CPS fell by 11%. What are the Government going to do about that?

The Government are working very hard in this area. In fact, I have personally dealt with a case in the Court of Appeal, trying to get the sentence raised on a domestic violence rape. However, I understand that the reduction in the number of suspects charged, together with the falling charge rate, is a cause for concern. We await the findings of what the hon. Gentleman knows is the cross-Government review of the criminal justice system’s response to this matter, but the report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate identifies a number of relevant issues, and I urge him to have a look at it.

The statistics show that 2.1 million people experienced domestic violence over this period—1.4 million women and 700,000 men. There is also this shocking disparity between the number of incidents and the number of subjects charged. The Solicitor General talks about there being a cause for concern and about reviews, but surely, given the scale of the problem, we need action now.

Action is being taken now. CPS policy on charging these matters, including on the charging of rape, has not changed. The code test has not changed; it still applies to all cases, no matter how minor, no matter how serious. Prosecutors do not apply a bookmaker’s test on this. They do not try to second-guess the jury. Where there is sufficient evidence to prosecute, they do, and they will. The CPS will not hesitate to do that.

My constituent Chloe was held captive by her former partner for several months, but she found the time waiting for her abuser’s trial almost as traumatic. Does the Solicitor General agree that if we are to expect the survivors of domestic abuse and violence to have the bravery to come forward, they need to be confident that they will get the support they need at this horrific time?

Yes, it is very important that they have the maximum support. Delay is always undesirable. I might add that, in an inspection into domestic abuse cases that was published only a few weeks ago, inspectors noted that CPS prosecutors had applied the code correctly in 100% of cases they examined.

The recent criminal justice joint inspection report noted that

“the domestic abuse caseload for both the CPS and the police has increased by 88% against the backdrop of a 25% reduction in police and CPS funding.”

This is leaving staff stretched and facing difficult decisions. Will the Solicitor General pursue the Chancellor for the resources necessary so that decisions are made according to public interest, rather than budgetary pressures?

These decisions are always made according to public interest and not to budgetary pressures. As I have mentioned before, the Treasury has already supplied £85 million more to the CPS, which is a very welcome sum and will be well spent.

County Lines Criminal Activity

6. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting perpetrators of criminal activity by county lines networks. (900802)

The county lines model of drug distribution blights communities and fuels serious violence. The CPS provides early advice to law enforcement to build strong cases against county lines and to ensure the robust prosecution of those using county lines to sell drugs. We have recent cases that highlight that model.

We are all victims when it comes to county lines drug gangs, and no more so than my constituents in Hassocks, which lies on the main London to Brighton railway line. On their behalf, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider making involvement in county lines activity an aggravated offence?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. British Transport police is doing good work in this area, and the Home Office is providing £25 million of targeted investment over this year and next year to tackle this particular issue, £5 million of which is already in operational use. Overall, expanding the national county lines co-ordination centre will be very positive in getting results, including work with British Transport police to prevent disruption on the rail network. There is also investment in new technology, including automatic number plate recognition. We are working across the board with law enforcement agencies and partners to deal with these gangs.

As well as addressing county lines networks, what discussions is my right hon. and learned Friend having with the Scottish Government to deal with county lines across the border between Scotland and England?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. I am pleased to say there is good co-operation across jurisdictions—between the English and Scottish authorities—and between the different counties in England that co-ordinate on these matters. The NCLCC is working in this area, and I understand it is working very effectively.

The work of these gangs stretches right across the UK, with more than 20 known to be operating county lines in Scotland. Can the Solicitor General assure me that prosecutors in the different criminal jurisdictions are working closely together to ensure that those behind “country lines” are brought to justice as speedily and effectively as possible?

The hon. Lady raises a good point. We know that county lines do not respect internal borders, and Police Scotland is engaged in the national law enforcement response to this issue. I am pleased to say Police Scotland is working as part of the NCLCC, which was established with £3.6 million of Home Office funding in 2018.

Public Understanding of the Law

I chair the public legal education committee, and I regularly engage with stakeholders and other Government Departments on public legal education to explore how we can increase public understanding of the law. Valuable work is ongoing in this area. During Justice Week, for example, the “big legal lesson” will be delivered in schools around the country on 24 February 2020. I will also attend an MP drop-in session in Portcullis House on 26 February—you will be very welcome, Mr Speaker—to raise awareness of the justice system. I urge all colleagues to pop by.

We are seeing more and more litigants-in-person due to the Government’s legal aid cuts, and many people never pursue their rights to see their children or to make financial claims because they do not know how. What will Ministers do to help people access justice, which is their right?

It is right that public legal education provides people with vital awareness, which is what it does. People need knowledge and understanding of their rights and responsibilities, but it is wrong to say it is a quid pro quo with legal aid. It acts as an adjunct to legal aid, and individuals face difficult challenges and sometimes require additional help. The pro bono work we see in the public legal education carried out by the legal and the third sectors helps to make a real difference. I have visited a number of locations, including the pro bono unit at the University of Leicester just last week, and they are helping people. This is a valuable exercise.

Understanding of the law is vital for the rule of law, but as the president of the Law Society reminded us this week, in the light of the deportation rulings, so, too, is judicial review. So why does No. 10 keep attacking judges, instead of law-breaking Ministers? Is judicial review not all the more important because although Parliament might not be “dead”, as the former Attorney General described it, it is utterly supine on providing checks on ministerial powers?

I do not think Parliament is supine in any context. The reality of the matter is that public legal education provides valuable insight and awareness to young people, in particular, about rights and responsibilities. I do not recognise the characteristic the hon. Gentleman puts on the issue.

Offences Against Emergency Workers: Prosecutions

7. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting offences against emergency workers. (900803)

8. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting offences against emergency workers. (900804)

The CPS takes offences against emergency service personnel extremely seriously. Between November 2018 and November 2019, the first year of the offence coming into effect, almost 20,000 offences were charged under the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, three quarters of which were assaults by beating; there were 19,771 offences against emergency workers, including 5,362 common assaults. In January, the CPS published a joint agreement with the National Police Chiefs’ Council, NHS England, the National Fire Chiefs Council and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. This shared understanding, and it will ensure that cases continue to be prosecuted and investigated effectively.

Reports of serious and violent crimes endured by emergency services staff have caused some of my constituents worry and anguish about loved ones who work in this area. What assurances can my right hon. and learned Friend give my constituents that the Government are taking steps to reduce serious and violent crime?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this point. I warn anyone who engages in any type of offence against an emergency service worker that the law will deal with them harshly; the estimated conviction rate, based on the first cases to go through the courts, was 90%. It is right that we see uplifts in sentence for those who assault emergency service workers, who serve the public diligently and courageously.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I think everybody in this House will endorse the idea that we should protect the protectors, so will he assure us that we will seek the maximum sentence when prosecuting these crimes?

Sentencing is a matter for the courts, but I agree with my hon. Friend in practice. A review sample revealed that nine in 10 assaults were against police officers. Almost all of those took place when the attacker was intoxicated by drink or drugs, and when they were being arrested or an unrelated offence was involved. Spitting was common. The violence perpetrated was wide-ranging, and included kicking, punching, headbutting, slapping and biting. The courts should and will come down on these offenders.

Leaving the EU: Human Rights and the Rule of Law

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the UK's departure from the EU on (a) legal protections on human rights and (b) the rule of law. (900805)

The United Kingdom has a long tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically, fulfilling its international human rights obligations and upholding the rule of law. Leaving the European Union has not and will not change that.

The Solicitor General knows that our institutions of liberal democracy—the BBC, the judiciary and the civil service—are under attack. He is planning to water down the Human Rights Act. Will he give a solemn undertaking that we will not be withdrawing from the European convention on human rights, which was established 62 years ago, with the help of Winston Churchill, and nor will we withdraw from the Council of Europe?

The UK is committed to human rights. The fact is that our EU exit does not change that; the UK will continue to champion human rights, at home and abroad—it is part of who we are as a people. We practised human rights before the 1998 Act and we will continue to do so. We are committed to upholding the rule of law. The UK is a beacon in this area around the world, and leaving the EU does not change that.

CPS Disclosure Obligations

10. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the correlation between the level of CPS resources and its ability to comply with its disclosure obligations. (900806)

The proper disclosure of unused material is vital if there is to be a fair trial, which is in the interests of the complainant, the accused and the whole community. There has been unprecedented joint commitment and focus from the police and the CPS on finding solutions to the problem of getting disclosure right. The £85 million investment in the CPS, to which I have alluded, will enable the CPS to respond effectively to the expected increase in case load resulting from the recruitment of 20,000 new police officers.

It is pretty clear that currently justice is not being done. Does the Solicitor General accept that that fund is simply not going to be enough to get the justice that this country deserves?

No, I do not accept that. In fact, the £85 million that was given to the CPS recently was the largest sum, pro rata, given to any Government Department. It is right that it is a priority for the Government to deal with criminal justice robustly, which is what the Government are going to do.

Antisemitic Hate Crime: Prosecutions

The proper disclosure of unused material is vital if there is to be a fair trial, and we will continue to focus on these issues, including on the issue of better meeting the disclosure obligations. We will work with investigators to pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry.

The CPS does not currently publish figures on hate crime prosecution rates disaggregated by racial and religious bias. Will the Solicitor General join me in urging the CPS to make that data available so that we can judge its performance on antisemitism and properly tackle this most hateful form of crime?

The issue of antisemitism, which my hon. Friend rightly raises, is one of very considerable concern. Just last week, I visited the Community Security Trust in north London; the work that the trust does with the Jewish community to combat antisemitism is significant and very much appreciated. My hon. Friend is right that it is important that proper records are kept by the CPS in respect of these matters, and we are constantly discussing with the CPS how better it can review its statistics and keep these things properly in the mind of the general public.