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Attorney General

Volume 700: debated on Thursday 16 September 2021

The Attorney General was asked—

Financial Crime: Prosecution Rates

Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I take this opportunity to place on the record my gratitude to you, to the Prime Minister and the Government, to Opposition parties, to the whole of Parliament and to the brilliant team at the Attorney General’s office for all of their work, which enabled me to take that precious time with my baby? On behalf of my family, may I say that we are incredibly grateful?

The Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office both play a crucial role in tackling financial crime. In 2020-21, the CPS prosecuted more than 6,500 defendants for fraud and forgery, with a conviction rate of 85.6%, and the SFO secured successful judicial outcomes in 84% of cases over the past four financial years.

It is now estimated that 86% of reported fraud is cyber-related. I am concerned that the CPS, the SFO and Action Fraud need the right skills and sense of urgency to deal with this rising crime, which has devastating effects on people’s lives. Can my right hon. and learned Friend update the House on that?

My hon. Friend rightly highlights the significant increase in cyber-crime. I am particularly interested in the issue, and last year I addressed the Cambridge International Symposium on Economic Crime and outlined that cyber-crime is a key priority for this Government. That is why in March this year the CPS launched its first ever economic crime strategy, to ensure that it remains ahead of the changing nature of this complex crime.

Mobile Phone Data: Criminal Trials

Effective handling of digital information is crucial to ensuring robust disclosure practices and effective trials. Alongside the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor, I will be co-hosting a tech event later this year with industry experts to investigate novel approaches to managing mobile device data throughout the criminal justice process. The revised disclosure guidelines that I published earlier this year specifically address technological issues, to assist practitioners in this ever-complex field.

Could my right hon. and learned Friend please explain how mobile phone data is being used to track and capture people smugglers who are sending illegal immigrants over the channel?

My hon. Friend raises an important and concerning issue. People smuggling is a terrible crime that blights the lives of vulnerable people and I welcome all the efforts the Government are making to combat it. The Crown Prosecution Service regularly uses mobile phone data when prosecuting offences under the Immigration Act 2016. Phone metadata can identify the location at which the phone was used, while the information content can identify details of the offence, or even wider offences. The CPS is highly cognisant of the effective use of mobile data, where available, to pursue effective prosecutions.

Effective and Accountable Justice

3. What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Justice to ensure an effective and accountable criminal justice system. (903458)

Together with colleagues in the Home Office, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Ministry of Justice, we have developed a criminal justice action plan to drive system recovery as we rebuild after the pandemic. Progress against the action plan will be measured by a set of criminal justice scorecards, which will be published quarterly from this autumn. This approach will enable a cross-system response to dips in performance and hold each part of the system accountable for improvement.

As a former Scottish Justice Secretary, I am well aware of Scotland’s distinct legal jurisdiction, but broadcasting and human rights are reserved responsibilities. Craig Murray, a Scottish journalist, has been jailed for eight months without appeal. Is the Attorney General able to make any representations to ensure that the European convention on human rights and other protocols are followed when they apply to such rights and powers?

We must ensure that all journalists have the right to express themselves and work in a free society. We are incredibly proud of that tradition in this country and our human rights regime rightly protects freedom of expression. I am happy to discuss this vital matter further with the hon. Gentleman.

I welcome the Attorney General back to her place. I am sure she will agree that it is also right to pay particular tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) for the way in which he discharged his duties as the Attorney General to the very high standards and with the impartiality of that office—it could not have been done better.

Does the Attorney General agree that for an effective system it is important that we have not only a fully joined-up plan but effective funding for all parts of the justice system? What steps is she taking to ensure a joint approach to getting the best possible outcome for the Law Officers’ Department, the CPS and the Ministry of Justice in the coming spending review?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the need for resources as we rebuild after the pandemic. We need to ensure that the court backlog, which we all accept exists, is dealt with. That is why we have been working across Government, with the sector and with local bodies to ensure that comprehensive support is available for victims and witnesses. After all, it is victims for whom we are here and for whom we need to fight.

I welcome the Attorney General back to her place—it is good to see her—and thank the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) for all his work during her maternity leave.

The court backlog is at a record high, with victims waiting years for their day in court. The latest Government data reveals that in the year ending March 2021, a staggering 1 million victims of crime abandoned their case because they lost faith in the justice system. The CPS budget has been cut by 33% in real terms over the past decade. Ahead of the comprehensive spending review, what specifically will the Attorney General say to the Treasury? What does she say specifically to the millions of victims who have lost faith in the system?

As I say, we accept that there is a court backlog, and it is a priority for this Government as we build back from the pandemic. The CPS has implemented a number of changes, with cross-system partners, to assist the criminal justice system in its response to covid. I was pleased that the independent inspectorate praised the CPS response to the pandemic. The CPS has recently introduced specific measures to accelerate its management of cases in the context of the pandemic.

The Chancellor has been clear that there will need to be tough choices as we come out of the pandemic. The public expect us to deliver the highest-quality services at the best value, ensuring that every pound is well spent. The CPS has received funding uplifts in the past three spending rounds, including £85 million to allow it to recruit more than 350 new prosecutors to boost capacity and support court recovery.

I have listened to what the Attorney General has said, but say to her that the criminal justice system is on its knees. In rape cases, 44% of victims are pulling out before their case gets to court. The latest Crown Prosecution Service data shows that it would take the Government 22 years to reach their own target of returning to 2016 rape prosecution levels—22 years! It is absolutely not good enough, and we see this Government repeatedly fail rape victims. Will the Attorney General tell me what she plans to do to ensure that the Government meet their target, or will she sit on her hands and oversee the further decriminalisation of rape?

The assertion that there has been a decriminalisation of rape is simply not backed up by the facts and is a very damaging narrative to proffer. It is very important that we recognise that, yes, there have been delays in the system, and I recognise how distressing those delays are. I want to reassure the hon. Lady that progress is being made to boost court capacity and to enable cases to continue to flow through the system. That includes harnessing technology, such as the cloud video platform, making use of the Nightingale courts and exploring the use of extended operating hours in court. The special measure allowing vulnerable victims, including rape victims and those who are witnesses in those cases, to pre-record their cross-examination evidence to reduce waiting times, which is under section 28, has been rapidly rolled out to cover all 82 Crown courts as of 23 November last year, and the CPS was a key partner in ensuring that that roll-out went smoothly.

I welcome the Attorney General back to her place and wish her growing family all the very best.

Does the Attorney General agree that any effective criminal justice system must ensure that cases are brought in a timely manner? Will she join me in welcoming the £50 million announced by the Scottish Government to clear the court backlog, and outline any advice that she has given to her Cabinet colleagues to ensure that victims can access effective and prompt justice through the court system?

There has been a real focus on dealing with the backlog and ensuring a better flow of cases right from reporting at the police station through to conviction. That was most pertinently highlighted in the recent rape review published by this Government with a particular focus on those victims. There have been a huge number of changes implemented by the CPS with cross-system partners to assist the criminal justice response to covid. As I have mentioned, it includes the interim charging protocol, which is designed to be clear that the high-harm crimes and covid-related crimes, such as spitting and assaults on essential workers, are prioritised. That will be and has been an effective step forward in dealing with the backlog.

Understanding of the Law

4. What steps the Government are taking to increase public understanding of the law among young people. (903460)

It is vital that children of all ages learn about our famous legal system. My office works very closely with the Department for Education to ensure that the curriculum covers a full range of important legal concepts, including fundamental rights and criminal law. My office also works very closely with members of the pro bono and public legal education committees, who run programmes to engage and educate young people about the law outside the curriculum.

Our legal system is the cornerstone of our society, so does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we need to work with not just with schools but voluntary organisations to make sure that young people understand not just the law and our legal process, but Parliament’s role in forming the law?

My hon. Friend has put it very well. Understanding the law is vital for young people. To that end, I wholeheartedly support pro bono work as part of education and a way in which students can support their communities to understand the law, their rights and what is required of them. When I was both training for and practising at the self-employed Bar, I undertook pro bono work and also volunteered for the free representation unit. I encourage all practitioners, young and older, to maintain that very proud tradition of the Bar.

In 1975, a 17-year-old young man died while on Army training. He was a recent recruit. The family have never believed the account of his death given by the Ministry of Defence. In 1998, my predecessor wrote to the then Attorney General about the case. Now it appears that new evidence has come forward. Will the Attorney General meet me and some of the family members to discuss this, in their pursuit of the truth?

I send my condolences to the family, and applaud the hon. Lady’s campaigning and work on the issue. I do not know about the case other than what she has just told me, but I am very happy to meet her to discuss it further.

Covid-19: Criminal Justice System

5. What steps the Government are taking to support the recovery of the criminal justice system since the easing of covid-19 restrictions. (903462)

I frequently meet criminal justice partners to discuss the important issue of criminal justice capacity since the covid-19 restrictions have been eased. The covid outbreak has been felt keenly by the criminal justice system. I have been proud of the resilience that the criminal justice agencies have demonstrated. There is still more to do, but both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office have been commended for their efforts during this difficult time, and I thank them for continuing to support the delivery of justice.

I support the Government’s efforts to address the recovery, and pay tribute to all those working hard across the country to make this happen, but can my right hon. and learned Friend tell me how victims are being supported so that they do not drop out of the criminal justice process due to the time lag?

I regularly meet the Director of Public Prosecutions and CPS teams around the country. I was pleased to meet CPS South West last year to learn more about its case progression and response to the pandemic. In February this year, the Government announced an additional £40 million to support victims of crime during the pandemic and beyond. Throughout this period, almost £600,000 of funding has been made available to assist helpline services, and £3 million per annum until 2022 has been committed to independent sexual violence advisers. That is a reflection of the comprehensive package of support put forward by this Government to help to build back better after the pandemic.

Refugee Rights: International Law

8. What recent assessment she has made of the compatibility of the Government’s proposals on asylum with (a) the UN’s convention on the status of refugees and (b) the rule of law. (903466)

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 discharges its international obligations in good faith. We have a proud history of providing protection to those who need it, in accordance with our international obligations. The Home Office’s new plan for immigration is based on fairness, and the Government stand by our moral and legal obligations to help innocent civilians fleeing cruelty from all over the world.

Speaking in the House on Tuesday of the Home Secretary’s plan literally to push back migrant children and their parents arriving by boats in the channel, the now former Justice Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), said that these actions would not even

“come close to breaking international law”—[Official Report, 14 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 799.]

Given the number of leading UK legal experts with no axe to grind who say the absolute opposite, can the Attorney General at least reassure the House that she has not advised the Home Secretary that pushback plans would be either legal or moral?

The Government are committed to addressing the unacceptable rise in dangerous and unnecessary small boat crossings, and are continuing to explore all options available to bring the numbers down. Our primary focus is on preventing people from entering the channel, tackling the criminal gangs responsible and protecting lives. As part of the Home Office’s ongoing operational response, it will continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options for stopping small boats.

Unduly Lenient Sentences

7. What recent comparative assessment she has made of the annual performance of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. (903464)

In 2020 my office received, and as the Law Officers we reviewed, 552 referrals under the unduly lenient sentence scheme. Ninety-seven of those were referred to the Court of Appeal and 61 sentences were increased. In February, I was proud to present in the Court of Appeal a case in which the victim was raped while in a relationship, and I was successful in increasing the defendant’s sentence. It is important that victims report these crimes and that justice is seen to be done.

Last month Cleveland police’s former head of corporate communications, Mr Green, pleaded guilty to making indecent images of children. The district judge gave Mr Green a sentence that involved no jail time and a community order lasting just 24 months. That strikes me as an unduly lenient sentence in any case, but given the position of trust he held in his senior role in Cleveland police, I believe that the case must be reviewed. Will the Attorney General review Mr Green’s sentence and ensure that justice is heard for the victims of his crime?

I thank my hon. Friend for his tireless work on behalf of those who have been affected by cases of this nature. This case was brought to my attention by Steve Turner, the Cleveland police and crime commissioner. As my hon. Friend will be aware, I can only review sentences that fall within the unduly lenient sentence scheme, and as this case was heard at the magistrates court it is ineligible.