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Attorney General

Volume 683: debated on Thursday 5 November 2020

The Attorney General was asked—

Legal Profession: Government Criticism

What discussions she has had with the Home Secretary on the video published by the Home Office that referred to activist lawyers. (908169)

What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on recent public criticism of the legal profession by the Government. (908171)

I speak regularly with Cabinet colleagues, including the Home Secretary, and I am in no doubt whatever that this Government are rightly proud of the UK’s legal tradition and our legal profession. We benefit enormously from the contribution of our excellent and hard-working lawyers, and I will always champion our profession and lawyers of all stripes, whichever side they represent, but sadly from time to time there are those who take advantage of their position and abuse the court process. In those instances, to pretend that lawyers are somehow beyond criticism is not only naive, but does the public a great disservice.

I listened to that answer, but does the Attorney General agree that she has to speak out and say that she does not condone these attacks? Will she explain what steps she has taken to address the matter with Cabinet members? Can she give me and the House assurances that these attacks, which are corrosive and undermining the legal profession, will cease immediately?

I am proud of the profession, and in my role as head of the Bar, I will not hesitate to champion the interests of our lawyers. Indeed, given that it is Pro Bono Week, I take this opportunity to thank the thousands of lawyers out there who regularly give their time and their services free of charge on a pro bono basis, helping some of the most vulnerable in our society. I was pleased earlier this year to acknowledge the winners of the LawWorks and Attorney General’s student pro bono awards, and I know that the Solicitor General himself has recently met with members of the community. That is a real mark of a compassionate profession.

At the Conservative party conference, the Prime Minister said he would prevent the whole criminal justice system being hamstrung by what the Home Secretary would doubtlessly like to call lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders. On 9 October, the chair of the Bar wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, copied to the Attorney General, asking the Prime Minister to withdraw those comments. Will she at least see that the chair of the Bar gets a reply to that letter sent a month ago? Those comments are leading to attacks—not just verbal, but often physical—on lawyers.

Lawyers play a vital role in our justice system and in upholding our democratic society. However, I find the words of the Lord Chief Justice very useful. He recently took the opportunity in the Court of Appeal to make the general point that

“it is a matter of regret that a minority of lawyers have lent their professional weight and support to vexatious representations and abusive late legal challenges.”

I find his words prescient and very relevant to this debate. As a friend and ally of the profession, I know the vast majority of our profession uphold the highest standards, but we cannot deny that there is a minority who do not.

I welcome the tone of the Attorney General’s remarks. Does she recognise that it lies in the hands of parliamentarians and legislators to correct faults in the system that are abused? At the same time, will she confirm that the Government are firmly committed to the robustness and public value of an independent legal profession and judiciary and to enhancing that by ramping up the work that we do in public legal education, so that people are generally more aware and better informed of the valuable work that the profession and the judiciary do for us all?

My hon. Friend and I are in total agreement on this. I know that during his years of practice at the Bar, he will have been part of a profession that upheld the highest standards. Generally, the profession is very well policed. We have a robust code of conduct. We have regulatory authorities that call out and discipline those lawyers who fall short of the standards. He is absolutely right that we need an independent and robust profession as part of a fair society, and his role has been critical, not only in public legal education but as a champion for justice as Chairman of the Justice Committee. As he was Master of the Bench of Middle Temple at my own Inn, I can definitely vouch for his overall fabulousness.

Lawyers, like all of us, have the right to work without fear or intimidation. Early in the pandemic, lawyers were rightly identified by this Government as key workers, yet the language used by the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister was not only wrong, it was reckless and does a huge disservice to an entire profession. I am certainly proud of the legal profession. The Attorney General says that she is too, so will she today condemn the references to criminal defence lawyers and immigration lawyers as “activists” and “do-gooders”?

Yes, I know that the hon. Lady had an esteemed career as a lawyer, and we share a common interest in upholding the position of lawyers in our society. Any violence—I must make this clear—is utterly deplorable against any lawyer or anyone going about their work. But we have to be clear that, more broadly, there are lawyers who have gone on the record to make it clear that they are pursuing politics through the courts. There are judges who have felt compelled in their decisions to remind counsel that judicial review is not and should not be regarded as politics by another means. Everyone in the profession needs to take heed of those observations in making their professional decisions.

I think many in the legal profession will be horrified by the approach that the Attorney General is taking today. She must, like the Lord Chancellor, accept that the comments from the Home Office and the Prime Minister went way beyond legitimate criticism, devaluing the values of lawyers and questioning their motivation. Will she join the criticism of the remarks that were made? Will she also investigate whether sources in the Government and Whitehall have been responsible for identifying individual law firms and lawyers when anonymously briefing newspapers about activities that the Home Secretary and No. 10 are angered by?

The hon. Gentleman refers to law firms and, by implication, the incident, which was very serious and, as I say, deplorable. It is not something to trivialise or politicise, and we should be careful not to draw conclusions about any incident that is under investigation. I know that he specialised in immigration law. I defended the Home Office for many years in the same field of law. We know that the vast majority of lawyers who specialise in immigration law are upholding the highest standards, are devoted to their clients and are working to secure justice. But we only have to look at the records of the Bar Standards Board or the Solicitors Regulation Authority to see that there are those who fall short of those high standards, and it is right that action should be taken to stop that sub-optimal delivery of service.

Serious Fraud Office: Proceeds of Crime

What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Serious Fraud Office in recovering the proceeds of crime. (908170)

In 2019-20, the Serious Fraud Office secured more than £13 million in new financial orders against criminals it investigated, with payments received against previous orders totalling more than £7 million. That strong performance has continued this year. In July, the SFO secured confiscation orders totalling £5.45 million against former Afren employees, and in September, the SFO used for the first time a listed asset recovery order to recover £500,000-worth of jewellery in a long-running mortgage fraud case.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer, and it is very encouraging to see the efforts being taken to make sure that crime does not pay. What has been the impact of covid-19 on the SFO’s capacity to recover crime proceeds?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. While covid-19 has obviously had an impact on the court system and caused some delays in obtaining and enforcing court orders, the SFO has continued to progress its proceeds of crime work, successfully obtaining confiscation orders and using new asset recovery powers to recover money in a long-running fraud case. Its ability to maintain operational effectiveness in the face of the challenges posed by covid-19 was recognised in the report by the inspectorate on the SFO’s response to the pandemic.

Rape and Sexual Assault: Prosecutions and Conviction Rates

We and the Crown Prosecution Service are working tirelessly with criminal justice partners to improve the handling of these sensitive cases. Over the last four quarters, we have seen the charging and conviction rates in rape cases continue to increase. This year, the CPS published its own rape strategy, updated rape legal guidance and training, is actively engaging in the Government rape review and will shortly be publishing a joint action plan on rape with the police.

The Solicitor General will know that rape prosecutions in England and Wales are now at the lowest ever levels. I suspect he shares the lack of surprise I felt when I learned that just one in seven rape survivors will ever see the justice system deliver justice for them. Can he confirm when the end-to-end rape review will be published by his Government?

I am very grateful for the hon. Member’s question because it highlights what we know and accept around the House is an important issue. Driving up rape prosecutions continues to be a major focus for the Attorney General’s Office and the Crown Prosecution Service, as work progresses to reverse this negative trend. We have actually seen the proportion of suspects charged with rape slowly increasing and we have also seen a continued increase in the volume of suspects charged, but I accept the thrust of her point, which is that there is more work to do. More work is being done, and as soon as these reports are ready, they will be published.

I welcome the recent announcements from the CPS and the guidance it has published to improve rape prosecution rates, particularly in relation to modern dating apps and selfies. However, the rape review published by the Victims’ Commissioner revealed that a large number of women are still reluctant to report rape in the first instance, because of an enduring concern that they will not be believed by the police when they do so. Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm what steps he is taking to ensure that the support and the structures exist so that women who come forward can have confidence that there is a reasonable prospect of securing a conviction?

The Crown Prosecution Service and the Government are determined to restore faith and build more faith in the criminal justice system, and to give victims of rape—this horrific offence—the confidence that everything will be done to bring offenders to justice. That is why the Government are reviewing the end-to-end response to this awful crime, in consultation with survivors groups as well as the Victims’ Commissioner, while recruiting more police and putting more money into the Crown Prosecution Service. This is a priority: it is a priority for me and for the Attorney General, for the Crown Prosecution Service and for this Government. I thank my hon. Friend for her support in this matter.

I have listened to what the Solicitor General has had to say, but the reality is that rape prosecutions are at their lowest level on record, and according to the Victims’ Commissioner, only one in seven rape victims has faith in the justice system. Last week, we discovered that an under-resourced CPS is not even getting the basics right, with almost half of letters to victims lacking empathy. It is clear that this Government are letting down victims of rape on every front. I have heard about the consultations and the reviews, but what urgent action are the Government taking to reverse this trend and ensure that victims have faith in the criminal justice system when they need it the most?

It is very important that victims have faith, and we ask everyone involved in the criminal justice system to support that system in giving victims faith. Dealing with this awful crime is a high priority for the Crown Prosecution Service, and for the Government, and driving up rape prosecutions continues to be a major focus. The overall trend over the past quarter shows that the volume and proportion of suspects charged is slowly increasing, but I accept that there is more work to do in this complex and multifaceted area. We are working with a number of bodies, including the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, to facilitate improvements, so that people can, and should, have the fullest confidence in our criminal justice system.

It has been a year and a half since the publication of the Gillen review into serious sexual offences and how they are prosecuted through the courts in Northern Ireland, and the Solicitor General’s office has taken a considerable interest in that, until the re-establishment of devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. It will now be another year before legislative changes are tabled in the Northern Ireland Assembly to deal with that review, which quite frankly is not acceptable. What can be done in this place to expedite those necessary changes and ensure that victims get fairness and equal British justice across all the United Kingdom?

As usual, the hon. Gentleman stands up for the people of Northern Ireland, and he is right to focus on that issue. I will make inquiries with the Northern Ireland Office and see how that matter is progressing, but he will acknowledge that there are no doubt legislative pressures, and that these things do take time. I assure him, however, that every effort will be made to liaise, and where possible to assist, in the furtherance of this matter.

Hate Crime Sentences

What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the CPS in securing sentence uplifts in hate crime cases. (908173)

I recognise the devastating impact that hate crimes have on victims and communities, and the CPS is committed to bringing offenders to justice. Training for prosecutors draws on input from key community groups, helping to improve the prosecution response to hate crime. In the 12 months to the end of June this year, the proportion of convictions for hate crime with a recorded sentence uplift increased to 78.4%, which is the highest rate yet.

Having heard directly from victims of hate crime in the west midlands, during a virtual session hosted by our candidate for police and crime commissioner, Jay Singh-Sohal, it is obvious that we need to do more to support victims of that appalling type of crime, through all stages of the judicial process. Will my right hon. and learned Friend commit to working with the CPS, and police across the country, to ensure that hate crime victims feel able to come forward and report incidents in the first place?

I thank my hon. Friend for her work with the Holocaust Educational Trust and on tackling antisemitism. I visited the CPS East of England yesterday, and heard about its great work on tackling hate crime. The CPS works closely around the country with members of the community, to ensure that the approach to hate crime prosecutions is sensitive and provides sufficient support to victims. For example, the CPS recently met key groups that represent the Jewish community, including the Community Security Trust, to discuss work on antisemitism. It also recently delivered a webinar on its approach to hate crime to an audience invited by the Chinese Welfare Trust and the Covid-19 anti-racism group, both of which support the Chinese and south-east Asian communities.

International Law: Government Compliance

What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of her Department in ensuring Government legislation complies with international law. (908174)

I work frequently with Departments on legislation, including on issues that relate to compliance with international law. The UK is committed to the rules-based international system. We were the architects of the post-war international legal order, including the UN Charter, NATO, and the European convention on human rights—a history of which I am very proud. The principle of discharging our treaty obligations in good faith is, and will remain, the key principle in forming the UK’s approach to international relations.

The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill breaks international law by reneging on the EU withdrawal agreement. The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill contravenes the right to life and the prohibition of torture under international conventions. The Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill means the UK will be unable to prosecute war crimes after five years, so we will end up at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The Attorney General’s job is to ensure that we deliver the rule of law nationally and internationally. She has failed in her duty. Will she now resign?

The hon. Gentleman raises some interesting points, but it seems that he has missed the fundamental principle underlying our constitution and the UK’s relationship with international law. It is not right to say that our constitution requires a blind and automatic adherence to international law. Domestic law is on a different plane to international law. It is entirely proper and constitutional, and in line with the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, that the Queen in Parliament may legislate in a manner inconsistent with international law. That is an age-old principle underpinning our constitution.

That is the end of questions. 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.