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Attorney General

Volume 698: debated on Thursday 1 July 2021

The Attorney General was asked—

Court Cases: Media Comment

What steps he has taken to help ensure that court cases are not prejudiced by inappropriate (a) reporting by the media and (b) comment by the public. (902030)

The question has been withdrawn, but I will ask the Attorney General to provide an answer, then I will call Kenny MacAskill to ask his supplementary.

In order to avoid prejudice to criminal proceedings, I may issue what is called a media advisory notice in order to inform and ensure responsible media coverage. I have launched a campaign called #thinkbeforeyoupost to promote awareness of the risks of ill-judged social media posts. It is critical that the evidence is tested before a jury—any evidence should be tested before a jury—in a court of law and not in the court of public opinion.

In a recent Scottish case, a High Court judge suggested that offences by a blogger were to be dealt with differently from similar breaches by mainstream media. Given that most, if not all, of the recent serious breaches have been carried out by the mainstream media, and given moreover that the press and media are evolutionary, with many of the current mainstream media once themselves having been radical outsiders supporting, for example, universal franchise, does the Attorney General agree that while bloggers rightly require to be held to account, they are equally entitled to the protections that apply to the rest of the mainstream media?

Everyone is equal under the law. In general, the media are responsible and are very much aware of reporting restrictions, the limitations on reporting of active proceedings, and what reporting might amount to a contempt of court. As I said, I do issue and have issued media advisory notices where that is not happening and in exceptional cases. The hon. Gentleman’s point about bloggers and others on social media is a live one. It is right that everyone is aware that whether they have training or not, they are responsible under the law for what they post. Interfering in, prejudicing or undermining court proceedings is a serious matter and can be visited with a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment.

Royal Albert Hall: Charity Tribunal

If he will make it his policy to support the Charity Commission’s request to refer the Royal Albert Hall to the charity tribunal. (902031)

The disagreement between the Charity Commission and the Royal Albert Hall is long-running and raises complex issues of charity law. The parties have been asked to try to resolve these issues without recourse to potentially costly litigation. That process is ongoing. My officials are continuing to engage with the parties to assist them in working through the contentious matters raised by this case.

A face-value ticket for an Eric Clapton concert in May next year at the Royal Albert Hall costs £175, yet tickets are on sale on Viagogo at a 577% mark-up, at £1,185 per ticket. The seats in question are owned by a party related to a vice-president of the corporation. The Attorney General wrote to me last week to say that he wishes to

“move this matter towards a satisfactory resolution as swiftly as possible.”

Will he therefore take immediate action on this serious and clear conflict of interest at a British institution and permit the Charity Commission to take this to a tribunal?

I am grateful for that elucidation, Mr Speaker. The Royal Albert Hall and the Charity Commission have been working to try to resolve the matter that the hon. Lady refers to without recourse to litigation, and I am awaiting the outcome of that process. I have instructed my officials to continue to engage with the parties that the hon. Lady refers to, to assist them in working through the complex issues raised by this case. I will say, however, that no decision has been taken on whether to consent to the referral to the Charity Commission. I will approach the matter as a neutral umpire, commensurate with my role as Attorney General and as parens patriae.

Criminal Justice System Recovery: Covid-19

What steps his Department is taking to support the recovery of the criminal justice system as covid-19 restrictions are eased. (902032)

What steps his Department is taking to support the recovery of the criminal justice system as covid-19 restrictions are eased. (902046)

I frequently meet criminal justice partners to discuss this important issue. The covid-19 outbreak has been felt keenly by the criminal justice system. Recovery is a priority for this Government. I have been proud of the resilience that criminal justice agencies have shown. There is still more to do, but both the CPS and the Serious Fraud Office have been commended for their efforts at this difficult time. I thank them for continuing to support the delivery of justice.

I thank the police, Wrexham and Denbighshire councils and other authorities in Clwyd South, who have done a great job during the difficult days of the pandemic. How can my right hon. and learned Friend reassure my constituents of efforts to continue to deliver justice in Clwyd South, despite the pandemic?

I thank my hon. Friend for his generous question. I am proud that all criminal justice agencies have worked closely together since the covid-19 outbreak to ensure that essential justice services continue to be delivered. The CPS and the court service in north Wales have worked closely together throughout the pandemic to ensure that courts can be run safely and to maximise the flow of cases, while preserving public health. For example, domestic abuse cases in particular have been prioritised in the magistrates courts, so there are no delays or backlogs for those sensitive cases, where victims deserve our protection and support, but that goes in Clwyd South and it goes everywhere.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his answer. In Sussex, we have a backlog of over 800 Crown court cases—one case is now approaching four years without coming to court—and a rising drop-out rate. The Nightingale court in Chichester is making a real difference, but we still need greater capacity and pace. Can he assure me that every avenue is being pursued to address this backlog, so that we can ensure justice for victims in Eastbourne and in Sussex?

Yes, indeed. CPS South East in her region is working with all criminal justice partners to support the recovery activity within Sussex, including to ensure court capacity can be maximised and file quality improved—of course, the better the file quality, the speedier proceedings can follow. The latest levels of cases that I have seen flowing through the courts indicate that in recent weeks at least, outstanding case load in the Crown court has begun to reduce. However, there is still more to be done, and I should say at this point that there is no limit on the number of days that Crown courts can sit for the next fiscal year. That will enable Crown court judges to hold as many hearings as they safely can and as is physically possible, as we continue to recover from the pandemic.

As we come out of the pandemic, to restore confidence in the criminal justice system, the public need to know that the law will apply equally to everyone, irrespective of rank, job or title. It is clear from the footage of the former Health Secretary and his aide that the law on indoor gatherings was breached. This very same law prevented Her Majesty the Queen from sitting with her family at the funeral of her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. Does the Attorney General agree that by failing to investigate the former Health Secretary’s breach, this Government are sending the message that there is one rule for Government Ministers and their advisers, and another for everyone else?

The hon. Lady will know that we do not discuss individual cases, putative or otherwise. The reality of the matter is that, as she will recognise, everyone is equal under the law in our system. That has always been the case and remains the case. We have an extremely pressing CPS case load, and a court system that is working very hard to bring justice to all, and that includes victims of serious crime, so I do not recognise the problem she raises. We have a system in this country in which everyone is treated equally, and it is a matter entirely for the independent authorities to investigate each and every case as they see fit, not for Government Ministers.

With a record 60,000 cases in the backlog of Crown court cases, past UK Government austerity is closing legal aid centres and now covid is impacting significantly on access to justice. Does the Attorney General agree that the justice system is vital to keeping cases moving through the justice system, and what does he plan to do to ensure that access to legal aid is available for everyone across the UK?

The hon. Member is right to raise this point. Of course, access to legal aid is very important in the administration of justice, and this Government have maintained funding for that purpose. She is also right to focus on the impact of the pandemic on the system. As I have already indicated, financial matters are being dealt with very generously by the Treasury and the Ministry of Justice. This Government have spent over a quarter of a billion pounds on recovery, as she may know, that has helped to make court buildings safe, including by rolling out new technology for virtual hearings, which of course is less expensive and less time-consuming. There is recruitment of additional staff, and there are Nightingale courts. Whether it be at one end of the criminal justice system or the other, this Government are funding the process so as to ensure speedy, safe and equal justice for all.

The Attorney General rightly referred to the work of the various justice agencies in this regard. The Director of Public Prosecutions gave powerful evidence to the Justice Committee on 15 June about the pressures that the backlog places on the Crown Prosecution Service. Every case that goes to court has to be worked on by CPS staff, and he is concerned that there is a real risk, in his word, of “fatigue” with case levels running at 50% above pre-covid levels. Can we make sure we have a whole-system approach of sustained investment in the Crown Prosecution Service and the rest of the prosecution service so that staff can cope with the demands of getting back on track and having cases brought forward timeously?

I thank my learned friend for his question, and he is right to make this point about the wellbeing of staff in the criminal justice system and, having had Max Hill before his Committee, in the CPS in particular. My hon. Friend will know that Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate’s reports have praised the Crown Prosecution Service and its focus on the wellbeing of staff during this period, because they have continued to deliver essential public service. In spite of the pandemic, staff have continued to attend courts, where necessary, to enable them to fulfil their public duty. I should say that the evidence his Committee has heard is correct: the total live CPS post-charge case load is 51% higher than pre-covid, which equates to 52,000 additional cases. In the magistrates court, there is an estimated increase of 3,800 cases that will require a trial listing, and there is an increase of 11,700—70%—in the Crown courts. So he is right to think about the wellbeing of staff and the fatigue that they are naturally enduring during this time.

Many of my constituents who are small business owners and self-employed are struggling with unpaid invoices and bills for work and services provided, and are threatened with losing their homes. They are not eligible for national support schemes and need to rely on courts to recover their lost money. What will the Minister do to help them get justice as quickly as possible?

The Government are very conscious of the pressure that businesses of all sizes—small, medium and large—have been put under by the pandemic. The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on small businesses, because losses occasioned by the pandemic and its exigencies put considerable pressure on small businesses in particular. Where they have to recover debts owed to them through the courts, the courts will process those matters, but there are prioritisations within the system. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that, to my knowledge, the Ministry of Justice is working hard to support the court process, so that all matters can be dealt with as expeditiously as possible.

Serious Fraud Office: Economic Crime

What recent assessment he has made of the Serious Fraud Office’s effectiveness in prosecuting serious economic crime. (902033)

I recognise the significant work that my hon. Friend has done to protect victims in this area, both as a constituency MP and in his role on the all-party groups on fair business banking and for whistleblowing. In the past 12 months the Serious Fraud Office had brought a number of individuals and corporations to justice, including successful prosecutions in its Unaoil case, uncovering $17 million in bribes. A conviction against GPT resulted in £30 million of confiscations, fines and costs, and deferred prosecution agreements with G4S and Airline Services Limited have resulted in more than £47 million in penalties and costs.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her answer. The GPT case she refers to was one of the SFO’s rare successes in court in a proven case of corruption. I think there were £28 million of penalties, although it may be £30 million, as she said, including costs. My constituent, Ian Foxley, was a key whistleblower in that case, but he has been completely hung out to dry by the SFO, and has had 10 years without any financial compensation—10 years of lost income. What effect does the Minister think that will have on future whistleblowers, and the likelihood that they will come forward with key evidence? Will she meet me and my constituent to discuss the matter and see what can be done?

I reassure my hon. Friend that the SFO recognises the importance of whistleblowers to its work, and if appropriate I would be happy to meet him to discuss the case and perhaps the issue more broadly. In that particular case the judge concluded that it was not suitable to make a compensation order, and that is why the SFO concluded that it would not be appropriate to put Mr Foxley’s victim impact statement before the court. I hope to discuss those issues more fully with my hon. Friend.

End-to-End Rape Review

I recognise the need to restore the faith of victims of these horrific cases. The recently published rape review outlines the Government’s ambition to ensure that justice is served and more cases progress through the system. The CPS is fully committed to delivering actions under the rape review, and those will result in improved joint working between police and prosecutors, to build stronger cases earlier and with less intrusion into victims’ private lives.

The review includes setting the CPS targets of getting rape prosecutions up to 2016 levels. Labour has said that the Government should return to those levels by next year, not by the end of the next Parliament—something the Lord Chancellor said was “constitutionally illiterate.” Will the Attorney General confirm whether the Government intend to stick to those targets, or have they already U-turned on that?

The matter to which the hon. Lady refers is for the Ministry of Justice, but she is right to raise it because cases involving rape and serious sexual offences are some of the most challenging and complicated cases—I emphasise that—with which the CPS deals. That is why only prosecutors with specialist training manage these incredibly sensitive, time-consuming and complex cases. The CPS is committed to ensuring that specialist prosecutors are equipped to deal with the complexities and sensitivities of those types of case.

For example, in May, the CPS published revised rape legal guidance, following public consultation, including new content on challenging rape myths and stereotypes, and a trauma-informed approach. The reason I raise that is that speed is important, yes, but it is also right that the complexities and sensitivities of those cases are handled by highly trained and professional CPS lawyers. That is what is happening.

The Government’s end-to-end rape review has been a missed opportunity to address the systemic failures in our criminal justice system. In the Attorney General’s own words, rape victims “are being failed” by this Government. After a two-year wait, the review offers only piecemeal pilots, tinkering around the edges and next to no new funding. When the dire rape conviction statistics were raised with the Prime Minister last week in the House, he dismissed that as “jabber”—a disgraceful response. Will the Attorney General apologise on behalf of the Prime Minister?

The hon. Lady is mischaracterising what was said last week. The cross-Government rape review was published on 18 June. It has produced key actions: an initial ambition to return volumes of cases progressing through the system to pre-2016 levels by the end of this Parliament; an ambition to ensure that no victim is left without access to a mobile phone for more than 24 hours; the launching of pathfinder projects to test innovative ways for the police and the CPS to approach rape cases—so much has been included in the rape review.

I very much accept, as I said in the rape review’s opening paragraphs, that a great deal needs to be done and that we are not happy with where the process has been. A great deal of work is going into that, however, and increased support for victims throughout the criminal justice system is important. That is happening, including through increased provisions, for example, with ISVAs—independent sexual violence advisers.

I am disappointed by the number of questions we have got through today. In future, I hope, we might be able to get through quite a few more. I will now suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.