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Attorney General

Volume 695: debated on Thursday 20 May 2021

The Attorney General was asked—

Domestic Violence Prosecutions

The Crown Prosecution Service published an ambitious 12-month domestic abuse programme in January, which aims to help to narrow the disparity between reporting and criminal justice outcomes through a focus of co-ordinated multi-agency action and specialist support for victims. The CPS has also taken steps to increase domestic abuse prosecutions at a local level. For example, since the start of the pandemic, CPS Thames and Chiltern has increased lines of communication with police forces to ensure domestic abuse cases are appropriately prioritised.

The criminal justice system is facing unprecedented backlogs, with survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault forced to wait more than a year for their day in court. The Queen’s Speech was an opportunity for the Government to address these failings, but it was an opportunity missed. Labour’s “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls” green paper was announced this week and is ready to go. Will the Attorney General support it?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which focuses on an extremely important issue of domestic abuse, which is one that I and the entire Government feel strongly about. In fact, I am sure everybody in this Chamber does. It is this Government who introduced the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. In a recent case that I conducted myself in the Court of Appeal, the offender’s sentence for extremely violent domestic abuse was increased from nine years to 15 years on my application. That is how seriously we take domestic abuse, and that is how seriously it is taken in terms of punishment and the crime. The point that the hon. Lady makes is that we should prioritise domestic abuse in the criminal justice system, and I can confirm that we do that. It is a very high focus for this Government and for the criminal justice system.

The “Evidence led domestic abuse prosecutions” report states that

“the domestic abuse caseload for both the CPS and the police has increased by 88% against the backdrop of a 25% reduction in police and CPS funding.”

Does the Attorney General think that the current level of resourcing to tackle domestic abuse is sufficient?

The hon. Lady is right to point to the case load. In fact, the Crown Prosecution Service’s case load has increased considerably. It is also right to point out that the conviction rate rose to 78.7% in quarter 3 of 2020-21, up from 77.4%. The Government have recently announced, as I am sure she knows, several funding packages specifically on domestic abuse, including funding to deal with the effects of the covid-19 crisis as it relates to domestic abuse. The decrease in the volume of overall prosecutions due to the impact of covid-19 is a factor, but this Government are funding this area and giving particular focus to it.

The number of domestic abuse-related prosecutions fell by 22% in the year ending March 2020, despite a 9% increase in recorded crimes. When I asked the Secretary of State for Justice how many specialist domestic violence courts have been in operation over the past 10 years, he could not give me an answer. Will the Attorney General commit to our proposals, set out in our “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls” green paper, to introduce properly funded specialist domestic violence courts across the country?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which is an astute one, and she recognises, as we all do, the importance of this area. It is of course this Government who have already put the Domestic Abuse Act on the statute book, so we are ahead of her party in prioritising this area, and that is a simple fact. The reality, I have to say, is that the CPS’s domestic abuse best practice framework seeks to address the withdrawal rates. She talks about the number of prosecutions, and of course prosecutions have gone down across the board because of the impact of the covid pandemic. However, we want to deliver a high-quality service to victims, and the work that is being done on the framework encourages more timely court listings to get these cases on more quickly and reduce victim attrition, which I know is something the Ministry of Justice and the whole criminal justice system are working very strongly on.

It is interesting that the right hon. and learned Gentleman says his party is ahead when it is Labour that has set out a green paper to tackle these issues head-on. What is even more worrying is that domestic abuse prosecutions now seem to be going the same way as rape prosecutions, which are at their lowest recorded level, and new figures show that 44% of rape victims give up before their trial even begins. Will the Attorney General adopt our fully drafted survivors support plan for rape victims and will he commit to backing Labour’s violence against women and girls green paper, or will he continue to sit on his hands and allow the continued systemic failing of the criminal justice system for women and girls in England and Wales?

I do not think it is accurate to refer to the criminal justice system as failing women and girls. It is a high focus for the criminal justice system, and there are a lot of people—thousands of people—working very hard, day in and day out, in the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and police forces around this country, with a very high priority to focus on this area. It is this Government who have allocated another £76 million to support victims of domestic abuse, sexual violence and modern slavery, as well as vulnerable children. It is this Government who have put the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 on the statute book. It is this Government who are creating 20,000 more police officers, and who have already funded the Crown Prosecution Service to over £85 million—closer to £100 million. It is this Government who recognise that we have to do better. We have to do more, and I accept that. There is always more that can be done, and in such an important area, one can never sit back. We have received 180,000 responses, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows, following the tragic case of Sarah Everard, to the consultation that the Government set up, and we will be looking very closely at those responses.

According to the Centre for Women’s Justice, one woman every week for the last two years has reported domestic abuse by their police officer spouse or partner, and every woman it spoke to said that the police had failed to investigate their case. Given the severity of these statistics, how confident is the Attorney General that the correct processes are in place in the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that complaints involving the police are investigated objectively?

Of course, the issue of the police is a matter for the Home Office, but I would say that I know the police are working very hard to prioritise and focus on these domestic abuse cases, and they do seek to achieve the very best possible results in all circumstances. There are tried and tested mechanisms for making complaints against the police, and clearly they are available to anyone who feels that a complaint would be appropriate and justified. We have worked very hard to produce the Domestic Abuse Act, which covers a number of areas that, as we have already rehearsed, will protect women and girls, and we will continue to do so.

Crown Prosecution Service: Communication with Victims

How we communicate with victims is absolutely critical to the delivery of justice. Having spoken to the Director of Public Prosecutions and others at the CPS, I know that they are fully committed to and understand the importance of clear and open communications to victims, giving explanations about their cases. That is why the CPS is carrying out a root and branch review to assess how best to deliver on its commitments to victims.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her response. What steps is the CPS taking to ensure that, in cases where the victim is known to have autism and other mental health conditions, they receive priority communications so that their mental health is not put under yet more pressure?

My hon. Friend raises an important question. In 2019, the CPS published its revised guidance on prosecuting cases where the defendant may have a mental health condition or disorder. Furthermore, where the CPS is aware that a victim has autism or mental health issues, it will consider writing in addition, or instead, to a guardian or parent, to deal with that case. For cases of rape or serious sexual offence, the CPS ensures that either the police officer overseeing the case or the independent sexual violence adviser is present to help explain to the victim any decision taken by the CPS in relation to the case.

It is essential that victims receive justice for the crimes committed against them. How is my right hon. and learned Friend ensuring that victims in Clwyd South, and elsewhere in the UK, are aware of their right to challenge unduly lenient sentences?

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has highlighted the importance of the ULS scheme. The Attorney General’s office promotes that scheme on social media, and we are working with the Ministry of Justice to raise awareness of the scheme as part of the revised victims code that came into force last month. For example, the code now includes a requirement for the witness care unit to inform victims of the scheme promptly when sentencing takes place. That will help improve awareness of the scheme, including for my hon. Friend’s constituents in Clwyd South.

Would my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the draft victims Bill provides an important opportunity to place the victims code on a proper statutory basis? Will she consider whether the Justice Committee would be suitable to carry out prelegislative scrutiny? Does she agree it is important that the code includes communication pre-charge by the police, as well as by the CPS post-charge, as both are equally important?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of the victims Bill. As he says, that Bill will have prelegislative scrutiny, and we welcome the Justice Committee’s views on that. He is right to highlight the importance of the work that goes on pre-charge, as well as post-charge, and we will be looking carefully at those matters.

Prosecution of Hate Crime

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the CPS’s work to improve community confidence in its prosecution of hate crime. (900282)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question on hate crime. I have been appalled by recent examples of hate crime, which are an utter disgrace. I warn racists and antisemites alike that the Crown Prosecution Service recognises the devastating impact that hate crime has on victims and communities, and it is committed to bringing offenders to justice. That is evidenced by the continued rise in sentence uplifts. This year, increases in sentences for hate crime reached the highest rate yet of nearly 80%. Outreach has continued throughout the pandemic with a range of community organisations to increase community confidence and improve the prosecution response to hate crime.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his response. Recently in my constituency, the owner of the Delaval Tandoori was physically and verbally assaulted by two men. The wonderful community of Seaton Delaval has rallied around to support that family-run business in the wake of the attack, but I know they will join me in looking to my right hon. and learned Friend for his assurance that the CPS will do all it can to bring those responsible for hate crime before our courts.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The Crown Prosecution Service will prosecute cases referred to it by the police and other law enforcement agencies, and where the test set out is met, it will prosecute those offences. Those who commit such offences must understand that their sentences have an 80% likelihood of being uplifted as a consequence of the hate element of their crime. According to one media report, we have recently seen a 600% increase in antisemitic crimes. We recognise that any form of hate crime against any group is obnoxious and antithetical to the interests of this country, and cannot be tolerated. The CPS recognises the devastating impact. Everything will be done and continues to be done to check those offences.

Prosecution Decision: Kettering

For what reason the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute the organiser of a large funeral held in breach of covid-19 regulations in Kettering in November 2020. (900283)

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about this issue, which he has already brought to my attention. The CPS makes its charging decisions independently, with every case judged on its own merit, based on the tests set out in the code. In this particular case, my understanding is that the CPS reviewed it and determined that there was insufficient evidence to continue with the proceedings. That was because there was no evidence that the suspect was responsible for the excess numbers present outside the church.

There is widespread dismay and outrage in Kettering that the organiser of that huge Irish Traveller funeral, held during the covid lockdown, has in effect got away with it. Clearly, however, the Crown Prosecution Service cannot successfully prosecute on any criminal case unless it is provided by the police with sufficient formal evidence against the accused. Given that the court hearing was held five months after the funeral took place, will the Solicitor General confirm when the CPS received the case file from the police?

I understand the concern of my hon. Friend’s constituents, as of many around the country who are abiding by the rules, which is what has managed to get our infection rates down. To answer his specific question, the first hearing was at the Northampton magistrates court on 19 April. The police had not previously sent the file through to the CPS due to a technical error on the part of the police. The file was received at 11.30 am on the morning of the hearing.

Criminal Justice System: Covid-19 Recovery

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service's contribution to the criminal justice system’s covid-19 recovery. (900284)

What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking with partner agencies in the criminal justice system to reduce the backlog of cases resulting from the covid-19 outbreak. (900286)

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service’s contribution to the criminal justice system’s covid-19 recovery. (900295)

I am pleased that inspections in both June 2020 and March 2021 found that the CPS responded well to the challenges caused by covid-19. Those inspections were by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. The CPS has made a significant contribution to supporting the criminal justice system during an exceptionally difficult time, working closely with partners. I am proud of prosecutors and staff who have continued to deliver their essential services, both virtually and in person where necessary, throughout the pandemic.

I thank the Attorney General for his answer and for his welcome focus on domestic violence, which he demonstrated throughout this Question Time. Will he reassure me that the Crown Prosecution Service will do all it can to prioritise cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse in the backlog, as those types of cases have a higher drop-off rate the longer the delay?

Yes, tackling domestic abuse, as I have been saying, is a key focus of the Government. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, the CPS south-east region, which covers her area, identifies domestic abuse cases, working with the Courts and Tribunal Service, to ensure that they can be listed before the court as a priority and that trial dates can be brought forward to avoid any unnecessary delay. She is right to focus on the issue. Work is being done in support of her point.

While a defendant typically has legal representation following the reporting of a rape, the victim has to wait months before an independent advocate becomes available. Even then, the independent sexual violence advocate is not permitted to go into the court to support a woman at the time she desperately needs it. First, why is there a three to six-month wait for an advocate to become available to deeply stressed individuals who have been assaulted? Secondly, will the Government undertake to review the situation in which the advocate, who is meant to support the victim, has to stay outside the courtroom? It is ridiculous!

As the hon. Lady may know, a rape review is due to be published soon. Together with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service introduced an interim charging protocol in April 2020 to prioritise the most important cases, to which she is referring, through the criminal justice system. Those are high-harm cases, including rape and domestic abuse. I am proud of the CPS’s response. I am sure she recognises that the exigencies of the pandemic have affected backlogs to a significant extent in many areas of public and private life, but a huge amount is being done to ameliorate that backlog. Particular priority is being given to the sorts of cases to which she is referring.

What learning will the CPS take forward from its pandemic response to increase resilience in the future?

One of the things that we will be looking at is the cloud video platform. The CPSI report published recently recognised the flexibility and adaptability of the CPS in responding to the pandemic. The cloud video platform was enabling around 20,000 virtual hearings a week, and post pandemic I am sure we will be looking at that among many other things.

If the Government are serious about tackling the backlog of court cases, will the Attorney General explain why his colleague in the Ministry of Justice has halved the amount spent annually on recorded sitting days in the past five years, from £19 million to £9.5 million?

I have actually discussed the issue of recorders very recently with the senior judiciary. The Ministry of Justice has recently arranged for an unlimited amount of sitting days—I think I am right in saying—so that the judiciary and the courts system can keep up with all the work that is going on. That is a very generous arrangement to allow the courts to make dramatic progress, and that includes recorders and the judiciary generally.

Although it is important that partner agencies in the criminal justice system do everything possible to eliminate the delays caused by covid-19, some of these problems stretch back much further than the start of the pandemic. In 2017 we reformed pre-charge bail to introduce time limits on how long suspects could be on bail before being charged. That came after the terrible treatment of some individuals, including Paul Gambaccini, who was held on bail for a year without being charged. Today, a number of people are still being bailed for a shocking length of time—years on end. I currently have a case where the National Crime Agency has kept an individual on bail for almost six years. That has ruined her life. The Government are now seeking to undo even the inadequate protections in the Police and Crime Act 2017 with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Will the Attorney General tell the House what the Government will do to protect against these injustices in coming legislation?

I thank my right hon. Friend for the point he makes. He thinks of the defence position, and is right to do so, and I am very grateful to him for raising it. I recognise how distressing delays can be, both to defendants and, of course, to victims, but these have been unprecedented times.

On the case my right hon. Friend refers to, decisions on whether to impose or extend pre-charge bail are operational and are not therefore something that Ministers can interfere with, but he makes a powerful point. It is right that those decisions are independent of Government, and it is important to note that the length of pre-charge bail is separate from the length of the investigation. There may be particular circumstances that cause concomitant delays in individual cases that are outwith my immediate knowledge or ability to intervene, and nor would it be appropriate for me to do so, but I recognise the point he makes. If he wishes to write to me about that individual case, we can certainly forward it to the relevant authority.

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

Sitting suspended.