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Attorney General

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 10 December 2020

The Attorney General was asked—

Covid-19: Backlog of Cases

What steps she is taking with (a) the CPS and (b) partner agencies in the criminal justice system to help reduce the backlog of cases as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (910024)

Morning, Mr Speaker. The criminal justice response to the pandemic has been truly collaborative, and I thank all frontline staff for their incredibly hard work. The Crown Prosecution Service is working closely with partner agencies to reduce the backlog of cases in courts. That includes introducing internal measures to manage larger, live caseloads and working to ensure maximum throughput of cases at court. I am pleased to say to the hon. Lady that Newport and Cwmbran magistrates court is now listing cases in line with pre-covid timescales.

The backlog of cases has meant a serious delay in the ability to access justice. As the Law Society has pointed out:

“Investing in legal aid for early advice and legal representation will ensure judicial time is used as efficiently as possible in cases which do go to court.”

What is the Attorney General doing with the Lord Chancellor to ensure that legal aid and early advice are funded properly to help tackle the backlog?

I am grateful for the question from the hon. Lady. I am working with the Lord Chancellor and with all Government Departments to support publicly funded lawyers. At the beginning of the pandemic, the CPS, for which I am mainly responsible, made changes to its system for paying fees to advocates to help support them during this difficult time. In August, the Government invested a further £51 million into the criminal legal aid fee scheme to better reflect the important work that publicly funded barristers provide.

I and members of the Justice Committee join the Attorney General in paying tribute to all those in the justice system who have worked very hard to deal with the extra pressures of the covid pandemic. Recognising that, she will know of course that the Lord Chief Justice has recently observed that a significant number of multi-handed large-scale organised crime cases are likely to be coming into the Crown court system in the coming year. That will add to pressure because of the social distancing arrangements required in Crown courts, and given that we are listing, at the moment, some cases up to 2022, that is clearly not desirable. How is she proposing that the CPS deals specifically with those pressures given also the comments by the inspectorate around disclosure still needing to be improved as that can cause delays at trials?

Again, my hon. Friend raises an important point, because, in order to tackle the backlog and ensure that court activity continues where possible, the CPS has moved over its Crown advocates to increase its resources in reviewing cases and has offered secondments to the Bar. That is something that has been welcomed by the Bar and by the profession. That move to bring CPS advocates in-house to deal with charging and case progression—matters that my hon. Friend raises—ensures that the CPS is in the best place to be ready for trials and to support the courts recovery plan to deal with the backlog and, in particular, those multi-handed trials, which are of concern when it comes to bearing down on this backlog.

I now call shadow Attorney General, Ellie Reeves, to whom I send birthday greetings. Happy birthday.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate the Attorney General on her happy news.

The CPS case backlog is up 55% since March; victims of domestic violence are being told by police to pursue civil action rather than criminal prosecutions because the courts are so overwhelmed; and the latest figures show that domestic abuse prosecutions are down by 19%. On the final day of 16 days of action against gender-based violence, it is clear that the Government are letting down victims on every front. What exactly is the Attorney General doing about this?

I wish the hon. Lady a happy birthday and thank her for her kind wishes, but I have to disagree with the premise of her question.

Of course, the Government take very seriously the challenges faced by vulnerable victims, particularly at this difficult time, and we acknowledge there are challenges and strains in the court system. That is why, earlier this year, the CPS introduced the interim charging protocol with the police, which prioritised high-harm cases, including those with victims of domestic abuse or serious violence. That has enabled a slower decrease or fall in the prosecutions of those cases.

We have also seen the roll-out of section 28 in 18 courts since February, and, as of 23 November, throughout 82 Crown courts. That is a real benefit for vulnerable victims who are going through the traumatic experience of giving evidence in domestic abuse cases and on sexual violence matters.

Immigration Offences: Prosecution

What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the CPS’s policy on the prosecution of immigration offences. (910025)

The CPS is committed to prosecuting immigration crime to protect UK borders, and, in particular, to bring to justice those who exploit and facilitate the entry of illegal migrants. The CPS has clear and published policy guidance on the prosecution of immigration offences that reflects the memorandum of understanding agreed between the CPS and Home Office Immigration Enforcement.

The offence of facilitating unlawful immigration has previously been used, quite rightly, to tackle smuggling gangs and traffickers, but in recent months the Crown Prosecution Service has started prosecuting refugees crossing the channel simply because they were the unlucky ones forced to steer the boat. As the chief inspector of borders has made clear, these people are victims of the gangs—they are not gang members—so why are they being prosecuted and put in prison, contrary to the spirit of UN protocols and the published CPS guidance?

The CPS has not changed its policy on prosecuting immigration offences. The joint approach between the CPS and Immigration Enforcement is to consider prosecution for anyone who has been involved in organising and planning these journeys—I emphasise, the organising and planning—together with those responsible for controlling the vessels. As always, every case has to be considered on its merits and on the facts, and decisions must be in line with the code in the usual way. Prosecutors have to be satisfied about that, and prosecutors understand their obligations.

The Solicitor General referred to prosecuting the people who control the vessels, but they are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) said, the victims of these gangs—not members of the gangs—so there has been a change in CPS policy and practice. If he wants to prove me wrong on that, will he publish the new note or guidance on this offence that I understand was issued to CPS lawyers last month, and will he also publish details of any representations made by the Home Office in the last 18 months in relation to this offence?

As I say, the policy is clear on prosecutors’ obligations. They have obligations—the obligations that we have under article 31 of the refugee convention—and it is well to point out that those obligations are actually enshrined in our domestic legislation, here in this honourable House. The domestic legislation in section 31 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 is quite clear in this area. Those who facilitate, control and engineer these offences are subject to prosecution.

Spending Review 2020 Additional Funding

What plans the CPS has to deliver improvements to services in (a) Northamptonshire and (b) England from the additional funding announced in the Spending Review 2020. (910026)

The Government are investing across the justice system, with a further £23 million for the CPS, on top of £85 million invested over the past two years. That investment will enable the CPS to respond effectively to the increase in caseload that we expect; we are recruiting 20,000 new police officers. That will strengthen our response to things like rape and serious sexual offences.

Investing in the CPS demonstrates this Government’s commitment to securing justice for victims of crime. I am pleased to say that funding will support the recruitment of new roles across England and Wales, including in CPS East Midlands, which covers Northamptonshire—both my county and my hon. Friend’s county.

Advocates for defendants at Northampton Crown court are regularly using the fact that their client has waited so long for justice during the pandemic as mitigation when seeking a lesser sentence from the judge. How is the Crown Prosecution Service countering such pleas so that convicted criminals receive the tougher sentences that the public want to see?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Northampton Crown court, at which I appeared for many years, both prosecuting and defending. Sentencing is a matter for the courts. The CPS prosecutors will assist the courts when it comes to sentencing to ensure that all relevant factors are brought to the court’s attention when considering a sentence.

Courts do have to have regard to guidance that the Sentencing Council publishes on sentencing principles, including during the covid pandemic. That includes advice that each case must be considered on its own facts. The court has an obligation—my hon. Friend is right to raise this—to protect the public and victims of crime, and sentencing by our judiciary is actually very robust. It is right, though, that judges hear mitigating features as well as aggravating features. They do that, and they sentence accordingly.

The Government should be commended for bringing down the number of outstanding Crown court cases, prior to covid, to a 10-year low, but of course the social distancing requirements of covid have changed the situation. Is the Crown court system now keeping up with the current inflow of cases? If not, how are the Government going to get a handle on the backlog?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which is well made. We have unlocked vital capacity by opening 16 so-called Nightingale courts to provide 29 extra courtrooms, 10 of which are being used for non-custodial types of cases and jury trials. We are continuing to open more Nightingale courts. We are spending £110 million on a range of emergency measures to help courts to tackle the impact of covid-19. We have recruited 1,600 additional staff, who are using the cloud video platform, and that continues to increase: virtual hearings are taking place more than ever. That has now been rolled out to over 150 magistrates courts and about 70 Crown courts. A lot of work is being done to increase capacity, but my hon. Friend is very right to raise this.

Rape and Sexual Assault: Prosecutions

What steps she has taken to increase the number of prosecutions relating to rape and sexual assault. (910027)

Tackling rape is a priority for this Government, and £3 million has been awarded to the CPS in this year’s spending review specifically for rape and serious sexual offence work. This year the CPS published its own rape strategy, “Rape and Serious Sexual Offences (RASSO) 2025”, and has updated rape legal guidance and training for specialist prosecutors. The CPS is also engaging stakeholders on a joint action plan on rape, with the police, aimed at improving joint working, launching in 2021.

I can rehearse the figures, as indeed the Attorney General can, on declining rates of prosecution for rape and sexual violence. The Victims Commissioner, Vera Baird, found that only one in seven victims believes they will get any form of justice through our criminal justice system. Does the Attorney General agree that if rape is not to be a de facto matter of impunity for the attacker, we must have the rape review published as soon as possible, and that we have to see urgent action to begin to bring these catastrophic and scandalous numbers down and to give confidence to victims that they will actually get justice?

The hon. Gentleman is, with respect, wrong to suggest that perpetrators of rape can behave with immunity—I think that was the word he used. There is a real priority shared throughout Government to bear down on the low rates of prosecutions and convictions in this area. Following the publishing of the shadow rape review, the Government have decided to delay publication of the end-to-end rape review until 2021, so that we can ensure proper engagement with the views and perspectives of stakeholders. That will allow us to assess other recently published findings, including the survey of victims of rape undertaken by the Victims’ Commissioner. That is important work, and we want to get it right.

Rape prosecutions are at their lowest level on record, and the recent survey of survivors found that just 14% believed they would receive justice by reporting the crime. Does the Attorney General agree that violence against women is a violation of women’s fundamental human rights, and does she therefore think that instead of announcing unnecessary consultations on the Human Rights Act 1998, which is there to protect victims and the public, the Government should instead focus on addressing the complete and systematic failures of the current criminal justice system?

The decline in criminal justice outcomes for rape is a cause of deep concern for us all, and although the increased charge rates in 2019-20 and in quarter 1 of 2020-21 have led to increases in the volume of cases proceeding to prosecution following charge, there is clearly more to be done.

The decline in this issue is complex and cross-system. It is why the Government have commissioned an end-to-end rape review, which, as I said, is due to publish next year. The CPS is proactive in making improvements, including the publication of its strategy, which deals head-on with trying to support victims and to address the concerns expressed in the 2019 inspectorate report. It has also published updated rape legal guidance for public consultation. That is the way to get it right, so that we can inject long-term benefits and change in the system.

Publicly Funded Barristers

What discussions she has had Cabinet colleagues on providing financial support for publicly-funded barristers. (910028)

Criminal defence lawyers play a crucial role in upholding the rule of law, and the Government greatly value the work that they do. In my meetings with the Bar Council, the Criminal Bar Association and with circuit leaders, support for the publicly funded Bar is always high on the agenda.

There are three things here. First, at the beginning of the pandemic, the CPS made changes to its system for paying fees to advocates to support them at that difficult time. Secondly, the Government made it easier for barristers to claim hardship payments for Crown court work. Thirdly, in August, the Government invested an extra £51 million into the criminal legal aid fee scheme to better reflect the important work that criminal barristers do.

It was extremely disappointing to see no further funding for legal aid practitioners announced in the Chancellor’s spending review. There has not been a rise in legal aid payments for 25 years, and a decade of Government cuts to legal aid have left thousands of practitioners facing the prospect of going out of business, even before coronavirus. Does the Attorney General agree that legal aid practitioners should have been included in the spending review?

As I have already mentioned, the £51 million of additional funding through the criminal legal aid review has been allocated specifically for those publicly funded barristers and lawyers of whom the hon. Gentleman speaks. The next phase of CLAR will involve an independently led review that will ensure the market meets demands, provides value for money for the taxpayer and provides for defendants to continue to receive high-quality advice from a diverse range of practitioners, protecting access to justice now and into the future.

Covid-19 Lockdown: Domestic Abuse Prosecutions

What assessment she has made of the adequacy of CPS resources to tackle domestic abuse prosecutions arising from the covid-19 lockdown. (910029)

The CPS is determined to bring perpetrators of domestic abuse to justice and provide protection for victims in spite of the pandemic. I have personally presented cases in the Court of Appeal where I have felt that sentences were too low in this area of law. Following the £85 million uplift awarded last year, CPS recruitment has continued to boost our resources and ensure that cases progress through the courts.

The Solicitor General will be aware of the 88% increase in case load and the 23% drop in resources to deal with that. What urgency can he inject to deal with this burning issue?

The hon. Member is right: it is a burning issue and a very important one. Domestic abuse cases are among our highest priorities in the court system, being dealt with by the criminal justice system. They continued to be afforded a higher priority as social distancing restrictions were eased. That was reinforced in guidance for judges about listing in magistrates courts issued by the senior presiding judge for England and Wales, and the CPS is working across Government. We are at one on this. We recognise it as a priority. Domestic abuse cases are appalling, and they remain among our highest priorities.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that up to 30% of domestic violence starts during pregnancy, so can he tell me what the CPS is doing to protect vulnerable babies from that toxic environment, which has such a profoundly damaging impact on their lifelong potential?

I am full of admiration for the work that my right hon. Friend does in this area. She is a powerful and committed advocate for this cause. She is undertaking some work for the Prime Minister, which I know the Government are eagerly awaiting. Tackling domestic abuse and supporting victims is a key priority for this Government, now more than ever. The Domestic Abuse Bill and the wider action plan will help to protect and support victims and their children. All NHS staff must undertake mandatory safeguarding training nowadays, which includes a focus on domestic abuse, so that they can pick it up. The new “Working Together to Safeguard Children” arrangements help to strengthen the multi-agency approach of partnership and collaborative working.

Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

The Court of Appeal has this month increased sentences referred by me for a range of offending. Those have included the supply of drugs in one of Her Majesty’s prisons, the possession of firearms, and the rape of a victim who was asleep combined with the making of indecent images and recordings.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the purposes of sentencing include public protection as well as punishment, and that is important for the unduly lenient sentence scheme?

My hon. Friend is entirely right about public protection. It is one reason why, exceptionally, I will refer a case involving a dangerous offender, for example. In two separate cases this year—one involving a stabbing, and the other involving rape, where both the victims were lone females—the offenders had their original sentences extended following my reference to the Court of Appeal to properly reflect the dangerousness of their offending. She is quite right to highlight this point, and that work will continue.

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

Sitting suspended.