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Attorney General

Volume 691: debated on Thursday 18 March 2021

The Attorney General was asked—

We now come to questions to the Attorney General, and I congratulate Michael Ellis on his appointment.

CPS Complex Casework Units

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. The Crown Prosecution Service complex casework units undertake some of the most complex and serious casework handled by the CPS. A recent report published by the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate has found that CPS complex casework units are staffed by highly dedicated, skilled and professional teams who deliver high-quality casework, often in demanding circumstances and at short notice.

I thank the Attorney General for his answer. What is the Crown Prosecution Service doing to tackle serious crimes such as drug dealing in my Derbyshire constituency?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The CPS East Midlands complex casework unit recently worked on an operation called Operation Trent, which concerned prosecutions against a criminal gang for drug-related activities during 2017 and 2018. A total of 26 people were convicted, and the two main defendants were sentenced in February this year. They got sentences of 20 years and 19 years, and the majority of the other defendants in that big case received custodial sentences of between 13 years and five years.

I welcome the Attorney General to his place. The recent inspectorate report on complex case units highlighted that CCU heads are often also responsible for rape and serious sexual offence units, despite the report five years ago stating that the expectation was that RASSO units would be staffed with rape specialist prosecutors. Rape prosecution levels are at an all-time low and urgent action is needed, so will the Attorney General back our survivors support plan calling for rape to be a clear named permanent specialism within the CPS?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As she knows, and as we heard from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition yesterday, we are always willing to discuss these matters and look at these issues. I am pleased that she mentions the CPS complex case units, because the CCUs are effective and efficient, and Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate found that they were managing their casework very well. While the report that she alludes to does identify some areas for improvement, that should not detract from the fact that the inspector found that there was an overall high standard of work during his inspection, and the report read very well.

I have heard what the Attorney General has said, but I am not sure that he grasps the scale of the issue. Last year, the police recorded over 55,000 rapes, but there were only 2,100 prosecutions and 1,400 convictions. The Government announced their end-to-end rape review over two years ago and we are still waiting for it, so I ask the Attorney General again: will he make rape a dedicated specialism within the CPS and will he back Labour’s survivors support plan for rape victims—or will he sit back and watch the effective decriminalisation of rape?

I do not think the emotive language that the hon. Lady uses is appropriate at all, and I have to say that that is not the case. The reality of the matter is that we have said we will always look at any ideas and suggestions. She talks about 55,000 cases, but only about 5,000 of those were actually referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS works very hard to prosecute and charge all the cases that are referred to it, and the statistics for that have gone up. Now, 65% of all rape cases that are referred to the CPS result in a charge. I suggest that she looks carefully at the CPSI report, which indicates good work in this area, although I very much acknowledge that more needs to be done.

I, too, welcome the Attorney General to his place and the Solicitor General in returning to her role as well. I know that the Committee will look forward to constructive engagement with both of them.

The Attorney General will know that there is particular concern about the backlog that exists in complex cases because of the difficulty in finding courtrooms, in the current circumstances, that have the capacity to try multi-handed, lengthy cases, particularly where people are in custody. Most of those are complex matters, and they are likely to grow. What discussions is he having with the Lord Chancellor, and with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and the judiciary more broadly, to find means by which capacity can be expanded and cases of this important kind can be brought to trial more swiftly, as much as is practically possible?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for the work he does as Chair of the Select Committee on Justice. I am pleased that the CPS is doing all it can, as it should, along with all the other parts of the criminal justice system, to clear the backlog, which has accumulated, in large part, as a consequence of this pandemic. More staff have been hired by the CPS, thanks to an £85 million cash injection in 2019 from the Government and another £23 million last year from the Government also to support the CPS. However, he is right to highlight this point. I regularly meet people from across the criminal justice system to work on this issue of clearing the backlog as effectively and efficiently as possible.

International Law on Rights of Refugees: Government Compliance

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department in helping to ensure the Government’s compliance with international law on the rights of refugees. (913655)

Any request for my advice is subject to the Law Officers’ convention, but I must make it clear that the UK prides itself on its leadership within the international system and that it discharges its international obligations in good faith. I also point out that the Solicitor General, whom I very much welcome to her place, attends the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee, which scrutinises all the Government’s legislation before it reaches Parliament.

All are equal before the eyes of the law, and that includes those coming here seeking asylum. Why then are we using military camps, which are entirely unacceptable at the best of times and most certainly during a pandemic? Rather than seeking to copy Australia and transport asylum seekers abroad, is it not time that this Government accepted that refugees have rights and that the Attorney General took action to ensure that the Government adhered to their responsibilities?

Frankly, as the Home Office has made quite clear, the UK is a world leader in resettlement, so I do not recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. If one looks at the actual figures, one sees that we have resettled nearly 30,000 people in the past five years, which is more than any other country in Europe. As for the use of former military barracks, if Her Majesty’s armed forces personnel can be housed appropriately in those barracks, there is no reason why anyone else cannot be. We adhere to our international and national obligations. This country is extremely open and generous in these matters. As I have said, we are the most open in Europe in terms of resettlement.

Reports in the press this morning indicate that the Home Secretary plans to send asylum seekers coming across the channel offshore, thousands of miles away, to have their claims processed. May I welcome the Attorney General to his place and ask him whether he has been consulted on the legality of these proposals yet? Can he reveal which countries his Government are doing this reprehensible deal with, given that this would be relevant to the legality of the proposals?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I am afraid that I cannot discuss what advice I give in other Departments and I cannot comment on legislation that the Government have not presented to Parliament. What I can say is this: the Government’s position is that refugees should claim asylum in the first safe country in which they find themselves. That is an international understanding, and European countries through which they have travelled to board boats to the UK, such as France, are of course manifestly safe.

County Lines Drug Dealing

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting offences relating to county lines drug dealing. (913656)

The Crown Prosecution Service and the police are working closely throughout the country to protect against the threats of county lines drug dealing and safeguard vulnerable victims in Norfolk. CPS East of England successfully prosecuted 26 cases between November 2019 and September 2020, securing sentences of up to seven years, and specialist training is offered to CPS prosecutors who undertake county lines work and prosecutions. The Government’s serious violence strategy details the range of actions being taken to tackle the impact of county lines.

I am grateful to the Attorney General for his response. My local police force in Norfolk has one of the best and most robust responses to tackling county lines drug dealing in the country and has made thousands of arrests to deal with the problem over the years. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the message is clear: “Come to Norfolk to deal drugs and you will be targeted, arrested and jailed”?

I commend my hon. Friend for making that point, and he is absolutely right. I thank him for his support for the prosecution of these odious offenders and offences. My hon. Friend clearly recognises, on behalf of his constituents, the challenges of county lines investigations, which can be complicated and onerous. The CPS intends to carry out a review of its ongoing work, including its effectiveness in prosecuting county lines offending this year. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the work in Norfolk, as I did a moment ago, and I reiterate my thanks for his support.

Modern Slavery

The Crown Prosecution Service continues to work with police and law enforcement agencies to prosecute modern slavery cases. Early engagement among prosecutors and investigators is central to a successful prosecution. When requested, the CPS will provide early investigative advice in such challenging cases to enable robust cases to be built. I should point out that the CPS now charges more than 75% of cases referred to it by the police.

Shockingly, more than 19,000 human trafficking and slavery crimes have been left unsolved since the passing of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, with suspects having faced action in fewer than one in 20 cases. Even though the volume of offences has increased every single year since 2015, under this Conservative Government the prosecution levels for modern slavery charges have fallen abysmally. Will the Attorney General tell us how he intends to reverse this worrying trend, which has happened under this Government’s watch?

Actually, it was this Conservative Government—under the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)—who passed the Modern Slavery Act. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have rightly focused enormous efforts on tackling this problem. The Crown Prosecution Service, for which I have superintendence responsibilities, prosecutes all cases that meet its appropriate guidelines, once the police have referred them to the CPS. All CPS areas have an appointed a modern slavery lead, who is dedicated to this matter and attends regular meetings with their local police force lead to try to work through the issue, secure safeguarding board involvement and review performance data. In other words, there is cross-work among the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and others to secure as many prosecutions and charges for this odious offence as possible.

The Government have been buying personal protective equipment from Brightway Holding, a company that is being investigated by the Malaysian Government for engaging in modern slavery. Workers are forced to live in squalid conditions and have to work 12 hours a day for up to 29 days without a rest. I heard what the Attorney General said about his commitment to enforcing the Modern Slavery Act in respect of supply chains in the private sector; will he now confirm that the Government will set an example and eradicate modern slavery, including the appalling example that I just described, from their own procurement practices?

I do not recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. What he ought to do, if I may respectfully suggest it, is to look at what this Government have done. It is on the record that the Government are achieving those issues that we have been discussing, namely: an increase in available criminal offences; an increase in the means by which to prosecute; and more resources to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in order to achieve the prosecutions. The Government are highly focused on that. If he wishes to write to me about the contract, we will refer it to the appropriate place.

Covid-19: CPS Engagement with Local Communities and External Stakeholders

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of CPS engagement with (a) local communities and (b) external stakeholders during the covid-19 outbreak. (913658)

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

I know that the Crown Prosecution Service liaised with external stakeholders through the pandemic, because I spoke to the Director of Public Prosecutions in my role as a former Justice Minister. I am aware that the CPS continued to engage proactively with local communities throughout the pandemic. This engagement assists the CPS in improving its policies and practices. For example, feedback from the CPS’s external consultation groups has helped to develop a joined-up criminal justice system approach to domestic abuse cases.

I welcome the Solicitor General to her new position.

Many of my constituents in Meriden are deeply concerned about recent events and violence against women and girls. Can my hon. and learned Friend please tell me how the CPS is working locally to better understand these issues and to respond to violence against women and girls?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this vital and important issue. The CPS works with victims groups through the Violence Against Women and Girls external consultation group and it also regularly engages with people at a local level. Last month, the CPS West Midlands chaired a meeting with independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advocates to discuss these issues. That forum meets four times a year to discuss casework with victims’ groups and specialist services.

Domestic Violence

The need to effectively tackle violence against women and girls has been brought into sharp relief, as the hon. Lady and this House knows, in recent days. I would like to reassure her that this Government take tackling domestic abuse extremely seriously, as shown by the introduction of the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill. The CPS is working hard to deliver justice in this area, working to protect the public, and has recently published an ambitious 12-month domestic abuse programme to help narrow the disparity between reporting and criminal justice outcomes.

In 2020, domestic abuse-related crime surged by 9%, but referrals to the CPS fell by 19%. We know that the CPS is under enormous pressure to clear the backlog caused by covid-19. Will the Attorney General commit to provide the necessary resources to ensure that all victims who report domestic abuse crimes receive the justice they deserve as swiftly as possible?

We will do everything we can to facilitate that. The reality, of course, is that the CPS can only deal with cases that are referred to it. That is an issue that needs to be addressed by the hon. Lady, but, as I have said, the Government have already introduced the Domestic Abuse Bill to Parliament, which is a landmark and generationally important. That is a signal, just one of many signals, of how important we consider this area to be, and the Crown Prosecution Service will continue to focus on it.

We know that domestic abuse complaints have rocketed during lockdown while prosecutions have collapsed. My constituents are concerned about that and are taking action with Charlotte Gerada and Kirsty Mellor, encouraging Portsmouth City Council to commit to the white ribbon pledge. What specific actions is the Attorney General taking to ensure that domestic abuse prosecutions do not follow the disastrous collapse of CPS rape prosecutions that we have seen in recent years?

I again point out that the number of rape prosecutions by the CPS has increased to 65% of all of those rape cases referred to it. That number is an increase on just under 50% some time ago. None the less, the hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point about domestic abuse. The Government are working on this area, as I have alluded to, with the Domestic Abuse Bill. There is also a call for evidence, which will inform our upcoming Violence Against Women and Girls strategy. That call for evidence has recently had tens of thousands of new people emailing and writing in. I encourage anyone listening to take part in that before it closes We will look at those responses very carefully and see what else we can do.

Covid-19: Backlog of Court Cases

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of steps taken by the CPS to tackle the increased backlog of cases before the courts as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (913663)

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of steps taken by the CPS to tackle the increased backlog of cases before the courts as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (913667)

Notwithstanding the pandemic, the courts have continued to operate and the Crown Prosecution Service has continued to play its part in our justice system. I was very pleased to read the recently published report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate on the CPS’s response to the court backlogs in the light of covid. The report reflects the CPS’s hard work, and finds that over the pandemic it has maintained its ability to function well, and to continue to deliver its essential public services.

Will my hon. and learned Friend tell me what reassurance I can provide my constituents that the most serious cases are being prioritised, to ensure the protection of the public?

Ensuring that perpetrators are brought to justice, and that the public are protected, is a priority of the Attorney General’s Office, of the CPS and of this Government. To achieve that, with the CPS working with the police, we introduced an interim charging protocol last year. The protocol prioritises the most important cases, and I am really pleased that those cases include high harm cases and those with vulnerable victims, such as rape and domestic abuse.

How can I reassure the people of Ashfield and Eastwood that victims of violence against women and girls will continue to receive justice in spite of delays caused by the backlog?

As I have mentioned, I share my hon. Friend’s view that it is vital that we continue to speedily prosecute those accused of violence against women and girls. I know that the Prime Minister shares that as a priority for our Government. We have put in place a number of measures to reduce the impact of delays on victims. Those include special measures allowing vulnerable victims and witnesses to pre-record their cross-examination ahead of the trial date, which were rolled out at all 82 of our Crown Courts by last November. That is just one of the measures we have taken to ensure the continued better operation of the system for our most vulnerable victims.

Court staff in London and Liverpool recently voted for strike action, and listening to evidence from the Public and Commercial Services Union to the Justice Committee this week it is easy to understand why, when PCS members are having to improvise their own perspex screens to protect themselves from covid after managers said it was unaffordable. Does the Solicitor General appreciate how this cavalier approach to health and safety by management has left court staff scared, angry and prepared to take strike action?

I appreciate the amazing work that everyone in our justice system is doing on the frontline. As a former Prisons Minister, I recognise what prison officers are doing and I know that HMCTS has done a tremendous amount of work to make our courts safe. I pay tribute to all the work of court staff who are going in and allowing our justice system to continue. HMCTS has put in a number of measures, and my understanding is that it is no less safe to be working in a court than in any other environment.

Covid-19: Public Understanding of the Law

What steps he is taking to increase public understanding of the law during the covid-19 outbreak. (913664)

It is essential, particularly during this pandemic, to ensure that members of the public have a good understanding of the law. I am proud, therefore, that my Department supported Justice Week, which took place in the first week of March, and I am incredibly grateful to the many members of the legal sector who ran and contributed to online initiatives during that week. It makes me proud to be one of the Government’s pro bono champions.

As coronavirus restrictions are relaxed, are there practical ways in which my right hon. and learned Friend can help reduce the confusion between Welsh and English covid laws for my constituents in Clwyd South, on the border with England?

It is important, of course, that everyone around this United Kingdom, and especially my hon. Friend’s constituents in Clwyd South, understands and follows the law and guidance as regards the covid-19 regulations to keep the country safe. Through the information that is available on the gov.uk website, and the Government’s advertising and announcements, the law in England has been made clear to the public. It is really important that the devolved Administration in Wales make their laws and guidance clear to people in Wales. The Government continue to seek a co-ordinated approach across the UK where appropriate.

I am now suspending the House to enable the necessary arrangements for the start of the next business.

Sitting suspended.