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Attorney General

Volume 675: debated on Tuesday 28 April 2020

The Attorney General was asked—

Covid-19: Domestic Violence

What discussions she has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the capacity of the Crown Prosecution Service to investigate the increase in domestic violence cases during the covid-19 outbreak. (901896)

What discussions she has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the capacity of the Crown Prosecution Service to investigate the increase in domestic violence cases during the covid-19 outbreak. (901900)

I call the Attorney General to answer the substantive question tabled by Carolyn Harris. May I welcome the Attorney General to her new role? Congratulations.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I congratulate the shadow Solicitor General, the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), on her appointment, and the shadow Attorney General, Lord Falconer, on his. I look forward to constructive debate with both of them, hopefully in the same room at some point.

There is no doubt whatsoever that this Government take domestic abuse and the pain that it causes extremely seriously, and that is especially the case at this time. The Crown Prosecution Service is wholly committed to ensuring that the perpetrators of this horrendous crime face justice and that victims are supported through what is often a very traumatic process.

Calls to the national domestic abuse helpline have increased by almost 50%, and 16 deaths of women and children were linked to domestic violence in the first three weeks of lockdown. With the CPS issuing new guidance as a result of the pandemic that advises prosecutors to prioritise the most serious cases, what assurances can the Attorney General provide that domestic abuse cases will fall into that category?

I thank the hon. Lady for her considerable work on this subject and her courage in speaking out about this matter. I myself represented victims of domestic abuse during my time as a lawyer. I have seen how devastating it can be, and I share her goal in wanting to eliminate this scourge from our society. I am very concerned about the rise in domestic abuse offending during lockdown. This is a difficult time for those who may be living with their abuser. That is why the Government have invested an extra £2 million at the frontline for online services and phone lines so that there is help 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for those victims who need it.

It is vital that cases of domestic violence are properly prosecuted during this covid-19 crisis. To avoid delays in prosecution, are the Government taking the necessary steps to enable the most serious cases to be heard through virtual court hearings where necessary?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. We need to go as far as we possibly can to support vulnerable victims throughout the court process. The CPS is at the forefront of implementing section 28 pre-recorded cross-examination, which aims to allow vulnerable victims to give evidence in advance of trial so that they can have a better experience of the process. I encourage him to look closely at the Domestic Abuse Bill, which contains considerable provisions to protect vulnerable witnesses throughout the court process.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on her new post; I am sure that she will do an excellent job.

With 100 arrests a day for alleged domestic violence in London alone, clearly the problem is getting worse. What action can my right hon. and learned Friend take to ensure that the victims of domestic abuse feel safe to give evidence against the perpetrators? At the moment, they fear reprisals and are not in a safe position.

This is an important point. A range of protections is available for victims so that they can give evidence in such situations. Prosecutors can apply for special measures, including a screen, or for evidence to be given via video link, so that victims do not need to have contact with their abuser in the trial process.

It cannot be emphasised enough how important it is that victims of domestic abuse get the support that they need during this very difficult time. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that this often-hidden scourge, which affects children as well as adults, must be a priority for the Government at all times, as is demonstrated by the commitments in the Domestic Abuse Bill?

My hon. Friend speaks with authority about child safeguarding, based on his practice as a barrister and his time in government as a Minister. These crimes are abhorrent, and those who commit them must not be let off the hook. Today, the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill returns to the Commons for its Second Reading. I am very proud to have personally supported this landmark legislation that provides support—legal and otherwise—for victims of domestic abuse, including children, so that we as a nation take a step further towards eliminating domestic abuse.

I congratulate the Attorney General on her appointment; likewise, I look forward to a constructive working relationship with her.

Charities and police forces across the country anticipated a rise in domestic abuse during the lockdown. Indeed, the Met is currently arresting an average of 100 people a day, with charges and cautions up 24%. Devastatingly, domestic abuse killings doubled in the first three weeks of lockdown. Meanwhile, in January, a report by the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate stated that the domestic abuse case load for both the CPS and police had increased by 88%, against the backdrop of a 25% reduction in funding, therefore stretching prosecutors’ workload and forcing them to make difficult decisions about priorities. I am extremely grateful for what the AG has said, but I urge her to significantly increase funding—

I am acutely concerned by the rise in domestic abuse offences in lockdown, and I want to make two points. First, the Domestic Abuse Bill, which returns to the Commons today, will involve the allocation of £3.1 million to services supporting children who witness domestic abuse in the house during lockdown. Secondly, I want to take this opportunity to let victims out there—men and women—know that they do not have to suffer in silence. There is support for them if they seek it. Please pick up the phone and dial 999; press 55 if you cannot speak. Use the national domestic abuse helpline. Crucially, please know that if you want to flee your abuser—if you want to leave the home—you will not be breaking coronavirus regulations. You will not be breaking the law if you seek help outside.

Serious Fraud

Last year, the Crown Prosecution Service prosecuted over 10,000 defendants where the principal offence was fraud or forgery. It also has a specialist fraud division, which brings together expertise and skills to prosecute complex and serious fraud.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend to her role. She will do a tremendous job, and she has an immediate opportunity to right a wrong. It is 10 years since my constituent, Ian Foxley, blew the whistle on corrupt payments at GPT Special Project Management. That has not come to a resolution. Will she now bring it to a resolution and ensure that my constituent and others in the same situation are properly compensated?

I thank my hon. Friend for his extensive work on that case. He has been indefatigable in seeking a resolution for his constituent—of that there is no doubt. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the details of the case, because the Serious Fraud Office is undertaking criminal investigations into the affairs of GPT and Saudi Arabia, which have taken some time because of the significant complexity involved. However, I would like to reassure my hon. Friend, because upon my appointment to this job, that case was one of the first matters, if not the first, to cross my desk, so it is a priority for me and I will not rest until we find an appropriate resolution.

Five thousand suspicious emails were reported to the National Cyber Security Centre just one day after the launch of its Cyber Aware campaign earlier this month, with a huge growth in malicious emails offering fake coronavirus-related services. Can the Attorney General tell me how prepared the CPS is to deal with prosecuting online fraud and scams during the coronavirus emergency?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this point, and I recognise the increased risk posed by scammers and fraudsters at this time of crisis. Sadly, there are those who will seek to exploit the vulnerable at this time. We are leading several initiatives in this area, such as working with the technology industry, to shut down any vulnerabilities that fraudsters might exploit and to ensure that the public have the knowledge so that they can spot scams and stand up to fraudsters.

I appreciate all the work my right hon. and learned Friend is doing in her new job at this difficult time. Naturally, there is real concern about crime, particularly fraud against the elderly. How is the CPS tackling cases of covid-19-related fraud?

This is an important issue. Sadly, criminals are looking to take advantage of the vulnerable during this pandemic. It is shameful and disgusting, but sadly it is a fact of life. We recognise the threat posed, and that is why the CPS and the police have published a joint charging protocol that makes it clear that covid-related fraud will be a priority for an immediate charging decision. I am glad that, as a result, we have already seen some successful prosecutions of such offences.

We all welcome the enormous packages of support that the Treasury has put together for businesses and individuals, but clearly there is the prospect of fraud by people applying to some of those schemes. Has my right hon. and learned Friend had discussions with the Treasury on those matters?

As the Chancellor of the Exchequer made clear in his announcements, the unprecedented level of support for businesses and those in financial difficulty has sadly raised the risk of fraud on the Exchequer, which is of course fraud on the taxpayer. There will be those who try to play the system, to make false claims and, frankly, to defraud and deceive. The Cabinet Office counter-fraud function is leading the work to minimise the risk, and the CPS has been fully engaged with this vital work.

Covid-19: CPS

What steps she is taking to ensure the effectiveness of the CPS during the covid-19 outbreak. (901902)

I would like to put on record my thanks to the whole CPS family and, indeed, the wider justice system for their hard work during this uncertain period. CPS staff are working remotely and, where safe to do so, in person. They are playing a full part in supporting the criminal justice system’s response to the pandemic with the use of more technology, more collaboration and planning for recovery.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend to her post. Further to her answer, will she tell me how the Crown Prosecution Service is working with the courts to manage the impact of covid-19 on its services and particularly to support them in planning for recovery, not least for the administration of justice?

Justice is non-negotiable, and notwithstanding the crisis we are facing, it is important that justice continues to be done and continues to be seen to be done. There has been very effective work between the CPS and other partners—for example, the judiciary and the Courts Service—to ensure that practical arrangements are put in place so that, as far as possible, our justice system continues to function through the use of technology and the efficient management of resources. The CPS is also working with partners to turn its focus towards recovery, including exploring options for a phased recovery.

Over recent weeks, we have seen a shameful trend in suspected criminals spitting and coughing at police officers. There have been a number of cases in my constituency of Ipswich, and it is a particularly pernicious form of assault during a covid-19 outbreak. Those responsible must have their day in court, and that day must come quickly so that they can be duly punished and others can be deterred from doing this. What steps is my right hon. and learned Friend taking to ensure that the CPS is right behind our police in prosecuting those responsible for this horrible crime and bringing them to justice quickly?

My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. Those on the frontline—those in the trenches of this battle—who are risking their own safety in the service of others are the heroes in this crisis and they deserve nothing less than our admiration. That is why assaults on emergency workers will not be tolerated. Those who commit these sickening offences will face the full force of the law. I am glad to have seen—if “glad” is the right word to use—that the CPS has successfully prosecuted several such offences recently.

What steps are the Government, along with the CPS, taking to ensure that this current crisis does not leave us with an enormous backlog of court cases that could lead to huge costs and delay justice for a long time to come?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The CPS and others have been working at pace to ensure that justice continues to be served. The Coronavirus Act 2020 enables the use of video and digital technology to facilitate court hearings during this crisis. The CPS is working with the judiciary to manage the listing of cases, so that cases that can be dealt with by way of a guilty plea or by other disposal are prioritised, which will go some way towards reducing the backlog in the system.

Covid-19: Remand on Bail

What discussions she has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on CPS management of people remanded on bail during the covid-19 outbreak. (901903)

[Inaudible]—capacity across the criminal justice system, and our focus is to ensure that the most dangerous offenders are dealt with as a priority. All cases with an approaching trial date, including bail cases, are under review to ensure that serious and time-sensitive cases are prioritised for trial and that any bail conditions remain suitable.

Given that there was already a backlog of more than 37,400 Crown court cases before the covid-19 outbreak—I am sure that many of those defendants were remanded in custody—what is the CPS doing to ensure that bail hearings for people who perhaps do not need to be remanded in custody can be expedited and that people can be released into the community when it is safe to do so? In that way, we can ease the pressures on the prison estate in terms of dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.

Clearly, any bail should be for the shortest possible period, because it restricts the ability of an individual to carry out their normal life while they remain innocent until proven guilty. Each case needs to be assessed on the individual facts, including the potential risks posed by a defendant of, for example, further offending or absconding. There are statutory limits underpinning the conditions that can be imposed, and the defendant has a right to apply to the court to vary or remove any conditions of bail. We need to ensure that these cases continue to be dealt with expeditiously, and the CPS is working with the judiciary to consider options for restarting some trials while maintaining social distancing.

Covid-19: Civil Liberties

What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the effect of the covid-19 contact tracing app on civil liberties. (901906)

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to be here and to see you—virtually or otherwise.

Her Majesty’s Government are actively considering a range of further options for managing the effect of the outbreak of covid-19. A careful assessment of any implications for civil liberties, including the impact on human rights, equality and privacy, will be an important part of these considerations.

I welcome the Government’s new focus on testing, tracing and containing the coronavirus, and I believe that the NHS contact tracing app has an important role to play. However, does the Attorney General agree that the legal basis for processing personal data by such an app should be set out in legislation and that this should include a measure that ensures the app stores data in a decentralised manner?

I am very pleased that the hon. Gentlemen is supportive of the contact tracing app. It is very important because everyone will benefit from the app. If enough people with smartphones download it, it will help stop the spread, slow the epidemic, and protect the NHS. I can assure him and others that the app will be for voluntary participation only. There will be no private identifiable information on it. The whole process will be compliant with data protection and there will be an ethical advisory board monitoring it.

We support the development of the app, which could be central to the lifting of the lockdown.  However, to be effective it would require more than 60% of the population to sign up, and achieving that would require trust from the public. Will the Solicitor General confirm that the legal basis for processing data under the app will be set out in primary legislation? Will he also confirm that any measures will be compliant with the general data protection regulation, both now and after the Brexit transition period?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. Stakeholder engagement in this matter has been crucial, and continues to be. We have been consulting not only the ethics advisory board for the app, which is chaired by Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery, but the Information Commissioner, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, the National Data Guardian and many others. Trust is important—it always is—but this app is from NHSX, the tech arm of the NHS, and in this country we trust our NHS with our data. The app is going to be heavily protected and I am confident that it will be very popular.

The Information Commissioner has said that the

“starting point for contact tracing should be decentralised systems that look to shift processing on to individuals’ devices where possible.”

Why have the Government apparently gone against that advice and reportedly opted for a significant centralised data-gathering system, with all the challenges and risks that that brings?

The app is being developed with expert assistance from a plethora of different sources. Data on the app will not be held any longer than is absolutely necessary, and civil liberties and the privacy of information are absolutely crucial to the development of the app. We want people to trust it and to use it—it is going to be important to protect the NHS and to save lives—so every single mechanism we have will be utilised to protect the privacy of data.

Pro Bono Work

As one of the Government’s pro bono champions, I am proud to support the valuable work provided by the legal and pro bono sectors. I regularly engage with pro bono stakeholders to engage directly with their work. Covid-19 has affected all frontline services, and the pro bono sector is not unaffected. I applaud the efforts of law clinics and pro bono services to continue to provide advice, where possible, over the phone, by email and digitally.

The pro bono offer in this country is incredible, and I pay tribute to all those in the legal services market who provide free legal services. Does the Solicitor General agree that we need to do more to promote greater awareness among the public about the legal services that are on offer in this country?

Yes, absolutely. It is of the utmost importance that members of the public are aware of their rights and responsibilities, as well as the rights of other citizens; this builds confidence and the skills needed to deal with disputes, and ensures that everyone has access to justice. For example, last year 500 schools, 7,500 students and 1,400 legal practitioners supported mock trials in schools. Such work builds on confidence and will support those in the pro bono sphere.

Many smaller legal firms want to offer free legal support to those who cannot afford it. Agencies, such as the citizens advice bureau in Wrexham, facilitate pro bono opportunities, and solicitors are covered by those agencies’ professional indemnity insurance. Demand exceeds supply and waiting lists are long. Does my right hon. and learned Friend feel we should incentivise smaller legal firms to undertake pro bono work?

Yes, increasing numbers of lawyers at all levels are already undertaking pro bono work, as my hon. Friend knows, because they recognise the truth—that it makes a real difference to people, communities and those who would otherwise be denied access to justice. I do encourage all firms of any size to take part; it is a commendable gesture. After all, we know that the legal community rallies admirably to support victims in their hour of need. The covid-19 pandemic is no exception, and I want to encourage lawyers to do as much as they can in that regard.

The Bar Council survey of 145 chambers revealed that 81% cannot survive the next 12 months without additional support. Similarly, many law firms are also struggling to make ends meet. Even before the pandemic, the publicly funded legal sector was already on its knees due to cuts to legal aid under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, hindering not only pro bono work but access to advice and representation across the piece. Will the Law Officers work together with us, at this time of national crisis, and commit to reversing LASPO?

The Government continue to prioritise legal aid for the matters that need it most—where people’s life or liberty is at stake, where they are at risk of serious physical harm or where children may be taken into care. Pro bono work is an adjunct to, not a substitute for, legal aid funding. We recognise that as Law Officers. It is correct that coronavirus has had a profound impact on us all and will inevitably have an impact on legal advice, provision and services, as it has on all other services, but guidance has been published by the Legal Aid Agency and the Courts and Tribunals Service, and I recommend people check online for the latest information.