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Attorney General

Volume 680: debated on Thursday 24 September 2020

The Attorney General was asked—

Vulnerable Victim Support

The needs and sensitivities of vulnerable victims are at the centre of Crown Prosecution Service casework. Prosecutors apply for special measures to ensure that vulnerable victims are supported to give their best evidence, and the CPS is engaged closely with the Courts and Tribunals Service, the police and other partners to facilitate the rapid roll-out of pre-recorded cross-examination for vulnerable victims and witnesses. The CPS regularly engages with stakeholders and works with national and local partners to continuously inform and improve its service, including to vulnerable victims and witnesses.

The sad reality is that there was an increase in domestic violence during the months of lockdown earlier this year. We know that it takes enormous courage for victims to come forward. How can I reassure my constituents in Burnley who are vulnerable victims of this awful crime that they will be protected and supported by the CPS and the Government when they come forward?

My hon. Friend is right. The Domestic Abuse Bill is a landmark Bill, and it contains many measures that I know he will welcome to support and protect victims. They include the introduction of domestic abuse protection orders, protections for victims to prevent them from being cross-examined by their abusers in family and civil courts, and the introduction of the first statutory definition of domestic abuse. He may be interested to know that in recent months, an increase in the number of domestic abuse cases moving through the system has been seen in CPS data for the county of Lancashire, and that is good news.

Crime rates in Carshalton and Wallington are, thankfully, below the national and London averages. However, worryingly, domestic abuse in the London Borough of Sutton is higher, on average, than in the rest of London, with covid restrictions only exacerbating the problem. What actions can my right hon. and learned Friend take to ensure that vulnerable victims and witnesses of domestic violence are supported and protected from intimidation during trial?

Domestic abuse is an abhorrent crime. It is a high priority for the CPS in my hon. Friend’s area of Sutton and everywhere in this country. It is vital that we bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice. Prosecutors apply for special measures, and that will help to ensure that vulnerable victims are supported to give their best evidence in difficult circumstances, and that they are protected from contact with the perpetrator of their abuse.

Serious Fraud Office: Covid-19

What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Serious Fraud Office’s response to the covid-19 outbreak. (906445)

What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Serious Fraud Office’s response to the covid-19 outbreak. (906459)

The Serious Fraud Office responded quickly to the disruption caused by covid, and it has continued to progress casework during this period. Notably, it has achieved a conclusion of the prosecutions in the Unaoil case, reached a deferred prosecution agreement with G4S, laid charges in the GPT case and obtained asset confiscation orders in other cases. The SFO’s ability to maintain operational effectiveness during covid was recognised in the report on its response to the pandemic that was published by the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend please explain what steps the Serious Fraud Office has taken to minimise any delays to its investigations caused by covid-19?

The chief investigator of the SFO led a taskforce in relation to covid, to assess all operational activity that was initially halted by the pandemic as part of the office’s wider recovery planning. In addition, general counsel for the Serious Fraud Office introduced virtual systems for reviewing cases and virtual processes. We have been monitoring the SFO closely and it has been performing well in very difficult circumstances.

Thank you, ground control.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his answers thus far. Will he go a bit further on the recent deferred prosecution agreements, including those with G4S and with Airbus? What assessment has he made of the benefits of DPAs as a tool for prosecuting those accused of such offences?

I thank my hon. Friend. DPAs are very important. They are extremely powerful tools that hold companies to account, and the SFO remains committed to using them. Since 2014, the SFO has agreed eight DPAs, five of which were for overseas corruption offences. The total value to the Treasury of all eight DPAs was around £1.58 billion, so I do hope that Her Majesty’s Treasury is listening; they bring large sums of money into the Exchequer.

UK Internal Market Bill: Northern Ireland

What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. (906446)

I regularly meet the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to discuss important issues of common interest. The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is an essential and landmark piece of legislation, which will safeguard and enrich our precious Union. The Bill is a prudent step to create a legal safety net and to take powers in reserve, whereby Ministers can guarantee the integrity of the UK and protect the peace process.

Consideration of and voting for this Bill do not constitute a breach of the law. However, there are powers in the Bill which, if and when exercised, will operate to disapply treaty obligations at the international law level—in particular, article 4 of the withdrawal agreement, and articles 5 and 10 of the Northern Ireland protocol. Parliamentary supremacy means that it is entirely constitutional and proper for Parliament to enact legislation, even if it breaches international treaty obligations. I am glad that my right hon. Friend voted in support of section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, which made it clear that parliamentary supremacy will prevail over international law.

The last five former UK Prime Ministers have all shared their concern about the Government’s intention to break international law through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. The Northern Ireland Secretary said that the Government anticipated breaking the law in a “specific and limited way”. Even the Attorney General’s own predecessor said that the Government’s intention to break the law is “unconscionable” and will greatly damage Britain’s international reputation. So I ask the Attorney General: are they all wrong?

The question of whether in law the Government can act in this way is very simply answered: yes, they can. The question of whether they should is one for political debate, not legal argument. The hon. Lady may not like that answer, but it is one that is founded on a robust legal footing by the supremacy of Parliament, elucidated by Dicey and confirmed by a unanimous Supreme Court in Miller.

I have listened to what the Attorney General has said and I do not think that she has really answered the question. As a barrister, she knows full well the role of the Government Law Officers; they must uphold the rule of law without fear or favour. As her political hero, Margaret Thatcher, once said:

“In order to be considered truly free, countries must…have…an abiding respect for the rule of law.”

Yet there is a universal view among those who look to the Attorney General to defend the rule of law that she has betrayed them, so could she tell the House what she has done to defend the rule of law in the face of the Government’s breach?

I prefer to take a less emotional approach than the hon. Lady. I am extremely proud to be supporting this Bill. It protects our country and it safeguards the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The leader of the hon. Lady’s party called for patriotism this week, but their opposition to this Bill is anything but patriotic. How she can call herself an MP who sits in the United Kingdom Parliament and at the same time vote against a Bill that defends the unity of our country, maintains peace in Northern Ireland and enables the United Kingdom—our country, her country—to thrive is not only illogical but does a grave disservice to the nation’s interests.

The Attorney General has just clearly illustrated that she is in office because, unlike Jonathan Jones and Lord Keen, she is putting her political loyalties—her Brexit fanaticism—ahead of her loyalty to the rule of law, when it should be the other way around. That is why she should resign. But does not this whole episode also illustrate why future Attorneys General should be lawyers and not party politicians? It is all right for her to trash her own reputation, but not the reputation of the office of Attorney General.

The legal basis for the Government’s proposals was set out in the statements of 10 and 17 September. Those made it clear that it is entirely proper, entirely constitutional and lawful in domestic law to enact legislation that may operate in breach of international law or treaty obligations. It is a pretty basic principle of law, and if the hon. Gentleman is having trouble understanding, I would be very happy to sit down and explain it to him.

Criminal Justice Disclosure Practices

I am committed to improving the disclosure process in criminal proceedings and upholding public trust in the criminal justice system. Following a public consultation during which I hosted several online engagement sessions with defence practitioners, prosecutors and professionals from the victims sector, I will shortly be publishing my revised guidelines on disclosure. Those will address the need for a culture change and provide up-to-date and clear guidance on how all parties in the criminal justice system can improve disclosure performance.

It is a hackneyed cliché that justice delayed is justice denied—denied for the victim, for witnesses and for the accused, many of whom may be innocent. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that the leadership and the departmental focus is in place to ensure that disclosure—particularly electronic disclosure—is undertaken in full and in a timely manner? Is this being measured? If so, are the targets currently being met?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important point. There has been an unprecedented focus over the last few years on ensuring that investigators and prosecutors are properly equipped to deal with large volumes of electronic evidence. The proliferation in technology and digital devices has put pressure on the disclosure process and notably increased the resources required. That does present a challenge for our investigators and prosecutors. There is not a silver bullet that will solve it, but I can assure my hon. Friend that this issue is not being left to languish. The Crown Prosecution Service, in particular, is investing in tools and working closely with its policing colleagues to meet these challenges.

Domestic and International Law Compliance

What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of her role in ensuring compliance with (a) domestic and (b) international law. (906448)

On 10 September, I wrote to Select Committee Chairs to set out the Government’s legal position on the withdrawal agreement and the provisions in the UKIM Bill, and that position has not changed. We will ask Parliament to support the use of clauses 42, 43 and 45 of the UKIM Bill, and any similar subsequent provisions, only in the case of the EU being engaged in a breach of its legal obligations and thereby undermining the Northern Ireland protocol and its fundamental purpose. This creates a legal safety net and takes powers in reserve whereby Ministers can act to guarantee the integrity of the United Kingdom and protect the peace process. We are very clear that we are acting in full accordance with UK law and the UK’s constitutional norms.

The Attorney General has justified her support for the Bill by reference to the domestic legal principle of parliamentary supremacy and the judgment of the UK Supreme Court in Miller. But in that case, the UK Supreme Court also said, at paragraph 55, that “treaties between sovereign states”, such as the withdrawal agreement,

“have effect in international law and are not governed by the domestic law of any state.”

The Supreme Court was quite clear that such treaties

“are binding on the United Kingdom in international law”.

Why did the Attorney General omit reference to that part of the Supreme Court’s judgment? Did she not learn the rule against selective citation when she was at law school?

On the principle, the dualist nature of our constitution makes it clear that international law and international treaty obligations only become binding in the UK until and unless Parliament says they do. That is a reflection of the supremacy of Parliament and of how, effectively, international law gives way to domestic law.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for several reasons. The first is for intervening in the Miller litigation. Her intervention allowed the Supreme Court to find unanimously, and hold on this point, for the sovereignty of Parliament when it comes to international law. Secondly, she has allowed me to give examples of where domestic legislatures have acted in breach of international obligations. She will be familiar with the controversial “named persons” legislation that was introduced by the SNP at Holyrood. It was ruled by the Supreme Court to be in breach of international law, namely article 8 of the European convention on human rights. Finally, I thank the hon. and learned Lady for allowing me to refer to her point about breaching the rules and the rule of law. May I gently suggest that she directs her anger closer to home: towards her SNP colleagues and those who sit on the National Executive Committee, who, as we speak, appear to be changing the rules to prevent her exclusively from standing as an MSP? Breaking the rules—the SNP could write the textbook on it!

I am not quite sure that we have responsibility for the SNP conference at the moment. I call the Chair of the Justice Committee.

The Attorney General referred to the letter that she sent to me and other Select Committee Chairs on 10 September, which included a statement of the Government’s legal position on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. What support, input and advice did she receive from any legal officials in her Department, or from Treasury counsel, in drawing up that statement of the Government’s legal position?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He will be aware of the Law Officers’ convention, which forbids me from confirming the fact of legal advice or the content of it, so I will not divulge any details about who may have assisted me in the drafting of legal advice. However, I am grateful to him for his contribution in finding a resolution, and particularly for his support on the Government amendments tabled earlier this week, which introduce a break-glass clause. That upholds the supremacy of Parliament, giving it an extra check and opportunity to look closely at and examine the case for taking this action. I believe that is lawful and constitutional.

Criminal Justice Backlog

Covid-19 has presented an unprecedented challenge for the criminal justice system, and significant cross-system working has been under way to keep cases moving through the system throughout the pandemic. Prosecutors and front-line CPS staff have continued to cover open courts throughout the outbreak. I pay tribute and put on record my sincere thanks to all the staff at the Crown Prosecution Service for continuing to support the justice system, and to the independent Bar and solicitors as well.

Following the comments of Judge Raynor, who accused the Government of systemic failure for not conducting trials in a reasonable time, what steps is the Attorney General taking with the Lord Chancellor to increase the number of safe and effective jury trials?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Actually, in the Crown court we safely resumed jury trials in England and Wales before any comparable jurisdiction in the world. With the full support of Public Health England and Public Health Wales, we were quicker off the mark to restart jury trials than our neighbouring countries. More than 900 jury trials have been listed since they recommenced on 18 May. I thank the Lord Chief Justice for his leadership in that area.

We have seen reports of some trials being listed for 2023, and in some cases court dates are not being given indefinitely. Does the Solicitor General agree with me that justice delayed is justice denied, and what is he doing to work to make sure that safe jury trials can be brought forward?

This is clearly a very important issue. We are performing better than comparable Commonwealth countries, but there is always more to do, and the hon. Member is right that we want to avoid delays as much as possible. For example, 128 rooms suitable for jury trials are currently available, and this will rise to 250 by the end of October. We are doing everything we can. The Crown Prosecution Service is now eating into its backlog—so the backlog is no longer increasing; it is decreasing—and will continue to do more. The Ministry of Justice has responsibility in this area.

United Kingdom Internal Market Bill: Rule of Law

What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the implications of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill for her role in promoting the rule of law. (906455)

I speak regularly to my Cabinet colleagues on various matters relating to Government business. In tabling the UKIM Bill, the Government are clear that we are acting in full accordance with UK law and the UK’s constitutional norms.

Our system of international law has been over 400 years in the making. How would the UK feel if other countries around the world were routinely putting “notwithstanding” clauses into their domestic legislation?

The reality and challenges of being a sovereign nation state are that there are times when tensions and conflicts arise between domestic legislatures and international obligations. There are countless examples of where states with democratically elected Governments, many of whom we held in high regard and including many with whom we deal and have agreements, have resolved those tensions through legislation to depart from, derogate from or even break international law. Of course, two wrongs do not make a right, but that is an important context that sets a perspective for the action this Government are proposing. We are a member of the international rules-based system, and I know our enviable reputation will hold us in good stead.

Domestic Abuse Prosecutions: Covid-19

What assessment she has made of the adequacy of CPS resources to pursue domestic abuse prosecutions arising from the covid-19 lockdown. (906458)

In spite of covid-19, the Crown Prosecution Service is determined to bring domestic abuse perpetrators to justice. We had an £85 million uplift from the Treasury last year. The target to recruit 390 more prosecutors has been met.

But CPS statistics show that domestic abuse complaints have rocketed during the lockdown—that also applies in the Northumbria area, where I am from—yet there are also hidden domestic abuse cases. What measures will the Solicitor General be taking to ensure that these cases are dealt with quickly?

The hon. Member is right to ask this question. It is important for Northumbria and around the country. Domestic abuse cases continue to be afforded a higher priority than other types of offences by our criminal justice system. This was reinforced, for example, in the guidance for judges about listings in the magistrates courts that has been issued by the senior presiding judge for England and Wales. It is a priority for the Crown Prosecution Service too, and we are going to keep a focus on this important area.

Covid-19 Restrictions

What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effectiveness of the legal framework governing covid-19 restrictions. (906462)

I speak frequently to Cabinet colleagues on various matters relating to Government business, including measures taken on covid. Everyone has made huge sacrifices this year to protect the NHS and save lives, and most people are still following the rules and doing their bit to control the virus, but we do need to act now to stop the virus spreading.

But does the Attorney General not agree that greater parliamentary scrutiny would prevent some of the wrong convictions and charges, and enable the police to better enforce the law?

The Coronavirus Act 2020 was put before Parliament and went through every stage that a Bill is expected to go through. Any regulations made under it are also subject to parliamentary approval. There is also a sunset provision in the Coronavirus Act, which means it will expire automatically after two years, if not extended. There is a parliamentary review every six months, which will give this Parliament the chance—for example, this coming Wednesday—to vote on a motion stating that the Act should not end.

It does. In her response to me a few moments ago, the Attorney General said that I intervened in the case of Miller v. Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. I did not intervene in that case, and perhaps if the Attorney General had read the case more closely, particularly paragraph 55, which I referred her to, she would know that I was not a party or an intervener in that case. I think she is getting it mixed up with the case of Cherry v. Advocate General for Scotland, in which a year ago today, the United Kingdom Supreme Court ruled that her Government’s action in proroguing Parliament was unlawful. I was not an intervener in that case; I was the lead litigant, and it is great to get an opportunity to mention it on the Floor of the House today and to celebrate that great victory for the rule of law, made in Scotland.

In fairness, I wanted to give the hon. and learned Lady the opportunity to make her point of order. That has been corrected, and I am sure that the Attorney General will accept what she has said. It is not a point of order for me, but the correction has now been made.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.