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Attorney General

Volume 688: debated on Thursday 4 February 2021

The Attorney General was asked—

Crown Prosecution Service: Apprenticeships

What assessment she has made of the adequacy of apprenticeship opportunities with the Crown Prosecution Service. (911864)

The Crown Prosecution Service offers a range of apprenticeships across the legal, human resources, finance, project management, leadership and management professions and has launched a flagship solicitor apprenticeship. The CPS has consistently exceeded the Government’s apprenticeship target. It currently employs 287 apprentices and a further 94 are about to enrol on a programme. This year, the CPS will also launch a pilot programme recruiting apprentices from low socioeconomic backgrounds to meet its diversifying law agenda.

I am grateful for that answer. It is encouraging to hear that the Crown Prosecution Service is offering lots of apprenticeships. However, it is really important that those opportunities are based not just in London but across the whole country, so I ask the Minister: what apprenticeships are being offered in places such as the High Peak?

A very good point. The CPS is actively contributing to the Government’s levelling-up agenda, offering apprenticeships across the board in a number of professions across England and Wales. I am pleased to say that the CPS East Midlands, where High Peak is, covers my hon. Friend’s constituency, and it has had 30 apprentices since 2016 and currently has two members of staff undertaking a solicitor apprenticeship. Upon completion of that, the solicitor apprenticeship results in fully qualified solicitor status and a role as Crown prosecutor.

There is a backlog of 55,000 cases in our Crown courts, victims are waiting years for their cases to be heard, and CPS letters fail to be of standard nearly 50% of the time. While we welcome apprenticeships in the CPS, staff levels were cut by 31% between 2011 and 2019, so why have the Government Law Officers failed to get to grips with the fundamental crisis facing the CPS and our criminal justice system?

I do not accept the characterisation that the hon. Lady puts on the Crown Prosecution Service. Indeed, it is performing very well and the inspectorate confirms that. The position, of course, is—it is National Apprenticeship Week next week—that I and the Government very much support apprenticeships, and it is right that the CPS does the work that it does to support young people and people from other socioeconomic backgrounds in getting apprenticeships. I hope that she is as supportive as we are of apprenticeships. The reality is that the apprenticeship programme has meant that currently at the CPS, 3.8% of the workforce are apprentices, and that is compared with a national target of 2.3%. This is another parameter in which the Crown Prosecution Service is actually doing very well.

Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

The unduly lenient sentence scheme is a vital safeguard in our criminal justice system. It permits me to intervene personally in a case where I consider that a sentencing judge has fallen into a gross error and imposed a sentence that is outside the reasonable range. Sentencing judges do get it right the vast majority of the time, but in those rare cases where they get it wrong, this is a very good scheme that ensures that justice is served.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but it is my constituents’ view and, I think, the view of constituents up and down the country that too many sentences are too lenient. Do the Law Officers and the Government have any plans to ensure that sentences are at a level that ensures public confidence in the judicial process?

I know that my hon. Friend speaks for his constituents and always has done. It is right to say, though, that our judiciary is admired around the world for its impartiality, intelligence, independence and intellectual rigour. It is of essential importance to the rule of law. I can, therefore, reassure my hon. Friend, and reiterate to him that it is rare for judges to get sentencing wrong. It is, of course, important that sentences reflect the seriousness of offending, and I have gone to court myself on several occasions to seek referral of sentences where we have felt they have been too low. However, generally speaking, he will find that sentences meet the gravamen of the crimes.

Serious Fraud Office

I regularly meet the director of the Serious Fraud Office and her senior leadership team to discuss the SFO’s progress in tackling the top level of serious and complex fraud, bribery and corruption. The SFO takes on some of the most complex and difficult cases, and it has delivered significant successes. From 2016-17 to 2019-20, the SFO’s successful judicial outcomes rate was 95% by case and 62% by defendant. To date in this financial year, the SFO has agreed two deferred prosecution agreements, making a contribution to Her Majesty’s Treasury thereby of over £44 million, including its costs, demonstrating significant value for money.

May I remind the Minister that many people believe that the Serious Fraud Office is seriously underfunded and under-resourced? It has just abandoned its inquiry into British American Tobacco. It is not able to take on the big boys and girls that cause the real trouble here, including serious financial misdeeds. When is he going to start again, look at the Serious Fraud Office, and give it the resources it needs to go after these real problems?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the interest he takes in the Crown Prosecution Service, and the Serious Fraud Office in particular. I know that he has a history of doing so, and we are grateful for it.

The reality is that the SFO has proper funding. The Attorney General and I meet the leaders of the Serious Fraud Office on a regular basis, and they know that this Government support them in what they do. They have, after all, obtained guilty pleas for bribery offences in the Petrofac case. The hon. Gentleman mentioned one other matter, but the reality is that they have secured convictions and guilty pleas in the Unaoil case, and agreed deferred prosecution agreements with Airbus and Airline Services. In a whole litany of cases they have secured very good results. Although I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point that there are always more resources that could be utilised, we will continue to support the Serious Fraud Office in its very good work.

May I start by asking the Solicitor General to convey to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General the good wishes of myself and the members of the Select Committee on Justice, as I know she is due to start her maternity leave before we have the next session of questions to the Law Officers?

Does the Solicitor General recognise that it is not just a matter of resources? Both the current and previous directors of the Serious Fraud Office have pointed out that they are handicapped in dealing with some of the most significant corporate crime, because the United Kingdom’s law on corporate criminal responsibility—in particular, the need to identify those who are the “directing mind” of the company—does not reflect well modern corporate practice. Will he confirm that there will be swift action once the Law Commission, which the Government have asked to look at this matter, reports at the end of the year, so that we come up to speed and be able to tackle serious corporate crime more effectively, in much the same way as the United States can because it has a more modern and effective legal test?

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Justice Committee, for his remarks. I will convey his remarks—in fact, I know my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General will have heard them—wishing her well.

As far as the ability of the Serious Fraud Office to prosecute matters is concerned, as my hon. Friend knows, these issues are kept under constant review. They are very complex cases, and it is right that the law must keep up with issues at hand to enable the Serious Fraud Office and, where appropriate, the Crown Prosecution Service to conduct those services effectively. Those matters are always kept under close review.

Crown Prosecution Service: Fraud Cases

What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in tackling fraud cases. (911867)

What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in tackling fraud cases. (911873)

What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in tackling fraud cases. (911877)

The CPS continues to work with the police and other investigators to prosecute criminal cases involving fraud. In 2019-20, the CPS prosecuted more than 10,000 defendants where fraud and forgery were the principal offence. It also has a dedicated specialist fraud division to deal with serious, complex and difficult cases of fraud that can often result in huge financial loss to victims.

Constituents in West Bromwich East have made me aware of some of the latest scams that criminals are using to exploit the public at this difficult time. They include text messages about covid-related grants and even criminals going door to door pretending to sell vaccine doses. Can my right hon. and learned Friend update us on any discussions she has had with the CPS about these specific types of fraud cases?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. Crimes where covid is the context for exploitation and fraudulent behaviour are completely sickening. The Director of Public Prosecutions has made it clear in his interim charging protocol that offences related to covid, including fraud, will be prioritised and that the offenders will be prosecuted. The joint inspectorate report commended the CPS’s response to the pandemic, including its ability to move to remote working without any major service interruption. That was noted as a major achievement.

Those who use this pandemic to exploit vulnerable people really are the lowest of the low. In Redcar and Cleveland, we have had a number of examples of fraudsters trying to trick elderly people in particular with fake vaccines and scam NHS emails. What more can the Government do to crack down on those types of criminals?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this sickening trend. The Government are committed to stopping criminals benefiting from their ill-gotten gains. In 2019-20, the CPS successfully used its specialist prosecutors to seize more than £100 million through confiscation orders across all offence types.

Over the pandemic, we have seen scammers claiming to be from Her Majesty’ Revenue and Customs, Royal Mail delivery scams, NatWest urging scam warnings out to its customers and, perhaps the lowest of the low, an NHS vaccine scam. Could my right hon. and learned Friend outline how the CPS is working in partnership with those organisations to tackle fraud?

We are aware that cyber-criminals and fraudsters are attempting to exploit opportunities around the pandemic, as I have said. That is why the Government have invested in the National Economic Crime Centre, which is leading a multi-agency response to tackle serious and organised fraud during the pandemic. The CPS continues to play a key role in this effort, providing early investigative support in serious fraud cases.

I, too, would like to join the Chairman of the Select Committee in wishing the Attorney General the very best for the birth of her child and maternity leave afterwards.

At a time when we are hearing about more disturbing cases of fraud, not just against private citizens but against the state and the public purse, will the Attorney General continue to give us information through the House of Commons Library, publicising the success stories of the CPS in following, tackling and prosecuting those fraudsters?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind wishes. He is right to highlight the successes that the CPS has had in tackling serious fraud. In recent months, the serious fraud division has brought three high-value investment scammers to justice. These include Joseph Lewis, who ran a £20 million Ponzi scheme fraud for a decade and was sentenced to five years and four months’ imprisonment, and Freddy David, an authorised financial consultant who was operating a parallel Ponzi fraud which resulted in a loss of £10.4 million to his victims. He was sentenced to a total of six years in prison and was issued with a confiscation order for just over £1 million.

Covid-19: Pro Bono Legal Services

I have heard directly from members of both my pro bono committee and the Public Legal Education Committee on the impact of the pandemic on their work. I know that the legal profession has continued valiantly to undertake pro bono work throughout this crisis, and I would like to restate my gratitude to all those who have volunteered their time and experience during this difficult time. It makes me proud to be one of the Government’s pro bono champions.

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend how my constituents can feel confident that they can still access the pro bono support they need, despite the pandemic?

My hon. Friend asks a good question, and his constituents should feel confident. I was heartened to hear of the overwhelming number of legal professionals across the country who have stepped forward to offer assistance during the pandemic. It is a true testament to the very nature of pro bono; as a tool, it is there to give back and help those most in need. I heard from members of my pro bono committee in September about the impact of the pandemic on their services, and the resilience and flexibility that they have shown in the face of such adversity is very impressive and much appreciated.

Domestic Violence Prosecutions

What discussions she has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on (a) identifying and (b) publishing the reasons for the change in the rate of prosecutions relating to domestic abuse in the last 12 months. (911876)

The Government take tackling domestic abuse extremely seriously, as shown, of course, by the introduction of the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that justice is delivered in such cases. In fact, I personally successfully presented the first unduly lenient sentence case of its kind at the Court of Appeal last year on coercive and controlling behaviour. The CPS is working hard to deliver justice and protect the public, and has recently published an ambitious 12-month domestic abuse programme to help narrow the disparity between the reporting of these offences and criminal justice outcomes.

About a fifth of crimes reported in lockdown have involved domestic abuse, and there is real concern that the number of specialist domestic violence courts seems to be reducing. Will the Minister commit to strengthen the system and increase the number of specialised courts, so that we can support the hard work of the police and support victims at trial?

That is a very good question. We are always looking at ways in which we can support those engaged in this important work. The Government have recently announced several funding packages linked to domestic abuse, including funding to deal with the effects of the covid-19 pandemic on domestic abuse. During the pandemic, the CPS has continued to prioritise domestic abuse cases. In addition to the interim charging protocol, a memorandum of understanding on the subject of domestic abuse was agreed in June across the whole criminal justice system. It supports multi-agency pre-hearing case progression for domestic abuse cases that are listed for trial.

Despite what the Minister says, domestic abuse prosecutions continue to plummet. They had already fallen off the cliff edge before the pandemic hit the justice system, with an annual decrease of some 22% in the year up to March 2020. Will he tell me what pre-emptive action is being taken now to stop this freefall and maintain the confidence of the victims of these deplorable crimes?

I hate to focus on this issue, but the reality is that of course all prosecutions have been affected by the pandemic. The whole courts system, as well as most other functioning systems in this country, are necessarily adversely affected by the pandemic. However, the hon. Gentleman has my assurance, and that of the Government, that domestic abuse cases are among the highest priority in the criminal justice system. On joint interim charging, for example, guidance issued by the police and the CPS immediately following the outbreak of covid-19 stated and confirmed that cases should be prioritised where the defendant is being held in custody, and that specifically included high-risk domestic abuse cases. So we are keeping our eye on this. These are extremely important cases and they must and should continue to be given the priority that they deserve.

I, too, offer my congratulations to the Attorney General on her forthcoming maternity leave.

As well as domestic violence prosecutions being down 19%, victims are left waiting for months for their cases to go to court and are increasingly being told to pursue civil cases instead. Despite the Solicitor General’s warm words, it is clear that the Government are letting victims down on every front. With the huge barriers facing victims of domestic abuse, will the Solicitor General join me today in backing the Bar Council’s call for non-means-tested legal aid to be made available to victims in the upcoming spending review?

Of course, I have to leave spending review issues to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of Exchequer, but the reality is that the CPS best practice domestic abuse framework seeks to address withdrawal rates by delivering a high-quality service to victims, and it encourages more timely court listings. As the hon. Lady knows, we cannot always guarantee immediate court listings, but the CPS does encourage more timely court listings for this type of case. The provision of holistic support for victims—including, where appropriate, the support of an independent domestic abuse adviser—is very important. Funding is going into this issue and it is being given priority. More can be done—the hon. Lady is right and in agreement with Government Members that this is an important area of priority—and we will continue to focus on the issue.

Order. I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.