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Attorney General

Volume 703: debated on Thursday 18 November 2021

The Attorney General was asked—

Offences Against the Person Act 1861: Section 24

1. What steps she is taking to help improve prosecution levels relating to section 24 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. (904187)

The recent rise in reports of spiking is incredibly concerning. The Crown Prosecution Service will always treat maliciously administering poison as a high harm offence. In 2020-21, the CPS brought 222 charges under section 24, which was an increase of 22% on the previous year.

It is truly horrendous to see reports in recent weeks about the huge numbers of people who are being spiked and then unable to find any sort of recourse to the criminal justice system. I am sure the Attorney General agrees with that. Does she further agree that it cannot be right to simply wait for the police to tell the Government how they can improve the levels of prosecution and bring about new charges? It really should be now for the Government to review the legislation to ensure that the victims are able to find redress and that those people who undertake spiking are prosecuted with the full force of the law.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue, and I share his concern. I am really pleased that the Home Secretary has asked the National Police Chiefs’ Council to urgently review the extent and scale of the issue. Of note is that there was an increase of 46% in the number of prosecutions brought by CPS Wales for offences under section 24. On the point about the legislative framework, he will know of course that section 24 is not the only avenue for redress. There is section 23, and section 61 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which can be used in appropriate circumstances.

Women and girls in pubs and nightclubs understandably feel vulnerable to having their drinks spiked, being spiked by needles or being supplied with dodgy and illegal drugs. The maximum penalty under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is 10 years in prison. How many of those who have been prosecuted have been sentenced to 10 years?

As I mentioned, several legal bases may be invoked in regard to these circumstances. Section 23, which covers poisoning that endangers a person’s life, carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. CPS figures show that there were 10 charges for that offence in 2020-21. Section 61, which is an offence to administer a substance to a person without their consent, again carries a maximum of 10 years in prison. Again, there were 10 charges for that offence in 2020-21.

Chilling reports of women being spiked by injection are just the latest example of the epidemic of violence that has left women and girls feeling unsafe. The latest figures show there were 1,223 reports of spiking under this Act, yet only 88 convictions, so will the Attorney General confirm her Government’s support for Labour’s amendment, tabled in the other place, calling for a wide-ranging review into the prevalence of spiking and the response of the criminal justice system when investigating these offences, or will she continue to allow women and girls to be failed by this Government?

As I mentioned, the Home Secretary has already asked for an urgent review on the scale of this particular problem, about which we are very concerned. We are supporting the roll-out of pilot initiatives to improve the safety of women at nightlife venues. The £5 million safety of women at night fund and the £25 million safer streets fund will support projects that target potential perpetrators, seek to protect potential victims and deliver programmes intended to address offending behaviour.

Supreme Court Judgments: Scottish Parliament Legislative Proposals

2. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the implications for the Government's policies of the Supreme Court judgments of 6 October 2021 on the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament relating to its legislative proposals on the (a) UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and (b) European Charter of Local Self-Government. (904188)

I welcome the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court to agree with the Law Officers that all provisions raised by virtue of our reference under section 33 of the Scotland Act 1998 were outside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. It is for the benefit of all citizens throughout the UK that both Governments operate within their respective powers, as set out in the Scotland Act 1988. That is why this decision is important.

I thank the Attorney General for her answer. Many, indeed all of our laws are crafted carefully, thoughtfully, and often after vigorous debate, and many offer important protections. Will my right hon. and learned Friend reassure the House that any devolved gender recognition legislation will not constrain or reinterpret the protections under the Equality Act 2010?

My hon. Friend raises an important point about our devolution settlement, and the Government are clear on their position as set out in our recent response to the consultation on the Gender Recognition Act 2004. First, the protection of single-sex spaces is extremely important; secondly, we must ensure that transgender adults are free to live their lives as they wish, without fear of persecution, while maintaining checks and balances in the system. Finally—this is not directly related to the GRA, but it is important nevertheless—we must ensure that under-18s are protected from decisions that they could make that are irreversible in the future. Any legislation that the Scottish Parliament may pass in that regard will not affect this Government’s position on our Gender Recognition Act.

To return to the original topic, perhaps the Attorney General should take this opportunity to congratulate the Scottish Parliament on voting unanimously to incorporate the convention on the rights of the child, and follow Holyrood’s example, instead of trying to stymie it. Three little subsections of the Act were ruled incompetent, as they would limit the powers of this Parliament and reserved public authorities to contravene children’s rights. Will the Attorney General explain why her Government fought so hard for the powers to breach children’s rights, and will she ensure that the powers are transferred to Edinburgh to complete the job? In short, let us prioritise children’s rights instead of this Parliament’s rights to trample all over them.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I take greater instruction from the President of the Supreme Court who stated in paragraph 77 of his judgment that there had been a decision by the Scottish Parliament to draft and enact a provision whose plain meaning did not accurately represent the law. That could not have been Parliament’s intention in enacting the Scotland Act 1998, and that is a decisive and emphatic statement from the Supreme Court. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that if the Scottish National party really cared about children’s rights, it would stop obsessing about constitutional division and instead focus on reversing the plummeting standards in Scottish schools.

Asylum Seekers: Channel Crossings

3. Whether she has had discussions with the Home Secretary on proposals in the Nationality and Borders Bill to intercept small boats and return asylum seekers to France. (904189)

11. What recent discussions she has had with the Home Secretary on the Nationality and Borders Bill proposals to intercept small boats and return asylum seekers to France. (904198)

The traffickers organising these dangerous crossings are putting lives at risk, and it is vital that we do everything we can to protect them and prevent them from operating from France. We must break the business model of criminal gangs exploiting vulnerable people. Our position is clear: people should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, and they should not risk their lives by making these dangerous journeys across the channel.

There is a duty on ships to rescue persons who are in danger at sea, in both customary international law and in binding international conventions such as the 1974 international convention for the safety of life at sea and the 1982 UN convention on the law of the sea. Given the UK Government’s supposed commitment to an international rules-based system, how does the Minister square that with clearly flouting those rules?

The Home Office is taking lawful action in the channel to disrupt the traffickers’ life-threatening and criminal business model, and that really should not be in question. This Government are taking urgent and necessary measures to fix our broken asylum system, stop people traffickers, and deter illegal entry, and I am most disappointed that the hon. Gentleman and his party did not see fit to support that.

The Home Office proposals are immoral, dangerous and, as we have just heard, illegal, because they break international law. This Government want to force others to do their bidding by breaking international law on their behalf. Any QC and Attorney General worth their salt would be telling the Home Secretary to forget her plans and not to break international law. Why will the Attorney General not step up to the plate?

The UK prides itself on its leadership within the international system and it discharges its international obligations in good faith. We have a proud history of providing protection to those who need it and to migrants who have a lawful basis to be here. My personal background is one such case of reference. Let me just say this. I have acted for the Government in court on several immigration and asylum cases—many, many of them—and I can tell the House that our asylum system is broken. Our Bill fixes it and it is a shame that the hon. Gentleman voted against it.

Does the Attorney General agree that it would not be practical or possible in law for international law to condone illegal immigration?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are international rules and conventions, which bind state parties, on our duties when it comes to maritime law and our obligations. We honour those duties and take them very seriously. We also have a domestic regime of immigration and asylum, which we are able to modify and change now that we have left the European Union.

Rape Conviction Rates

4. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on (a) the role of the CPS in improving conviction rates for rape and (b) the end-to-end rape review targets for rape prosecutions. (904190)

5. What recent discussions has she had with the CPS on increasing the number of successful prosecutions for (a) rape and (b) serious sexual assault. (904191)

The Law Officers regularly meet ministerial colleagues, as well as the Director of Public Prosecutions and others, to drive forward progress on what we all want to see: justice for victims of rape and serious sexual offences. Last week, I went to meet RASSO—rape and serious sexual offences—prosecutors at the Crown Prosecution Service west midlands, and was pleased to congratulate them on helping to secure several recent convictions, including that of a double rapist, Daniel Jones, who was later imprisoned for 17 years for his appalling crimes.

A recent report from the National Audit Office states that rape cases are most at risk of collapse as people withdraw. Does the Minister agree that the Government are failing rape victims, who can wait years for their cases to be heard, leading many of them to withdraw from the process? Can he explain why the Government opposed Labour’s proposals, which would have enabled the fast-tracking of rape cases and the pre-recording of victims’ evidence?

That is because there are already active measures to pre-record evidence, as the hon. Gentleman should know. He is absolutely right that we need to speed up the system. That is why “RASSO 2025” was published by the CPS; that is why there is a joint national action plan between the police and the CPS to improve file quality; that is why there is an end-to-end rape review; and that is why the Government have put £80 million into the CPS to ensure that justice can be done.

Local community safety partnerships across Devon and Cornwall estimate that in 2019-20 there were 23,000 victims of sexual assault across the two counties, including in my own constituency. How will the Minister ensure that local leaders are given the powers and tools they need to hold all criminal justice agencies, including the CPS, to account locally for delivering the progress that is so needed on prosecutions?

I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent question. She is a tireless champion of this issue in North Devon. Every agency, from the police to the CPS to Whitehall Departments, has been mobilised to drive improvements in outcomes for these complex and sensitive cases. As well as launching “RASSO 2025” by the police and the joint national action plan, the Government are investing heavily in the recruitment of ISVAs—independent sexual violence advisors—to support complainants through the court process. I will just say this: it is early days, but initial data is positive. The number of rape prosecutions in the second quarter of this year was 14% higher than in the last quarter pre-covid, and the number of convictions 16% higher over the same period.

The rape review lumps together spending on tackling domestic violence and rape. The headline figure is £176 million, but £125 million of that is for refuge accommodation. That is vital, but it is nothing to do with improving victims’ experience of the criminal justice system or improving rape convictions. Can the Minister explain just how much new funding he has secured from the Treasury to support rape victims to get justice?

I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that point. He is absolutely right that refuge accommodation is very important, but it is not everything. One of the things that I am very proud of is that an additional £27 million is going on recruiting 700 independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic abuse advisers. Those individuals can provide critical support to people who, frankly, might find the whole process forbidding. Also, we have done work to publish the victims’ code in April 2021, which provides victims with the rights that they deserve.

I understand the Minister’s response well, but this is not just about cases going to court more quickly to have them processed. It is also about those ladies and rape victims who are very vulnerable and very lonely. What will happen in the time period until the case is heard to ensure that they have the assistance and help that they need, from every point of view?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. One of the other things that we have done is to increase funding for rape support centres by two thirds so that individuals know that they are not alone. The constant refrain from individuals will be, “I didn’t feel supported”, but it would be quite wrong for the message to go out suggesting that there is not that support. This is what victims said after a case recently in my county of Gloucestershire. Victim B said:

“I would just like to say how happy I am with the whole criminal justice system. The support offered is amazing.”

Victim C said:

“The support from the police and GRASAC (Gloucestershire’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre) has been amazing”.

That support is out there and we want to make sure it is there in ever greater quantities.

I welcome the Solicitor General to his place for his first departmental questions. He brings massive personal experience to cases of this kind and has prosecuted exactly these sorts of cases. Does he agree that there has been significant improvement in the treatment of victims, particularly after the revision of the Crown Prosecution Service legal guidance—for example, in the awareness of trauma and the impact that that has on victims—and in getting the right balance in dealing with digital evidence? Is it not important now that we maintain the capacity of the courts system to bring these cases to trial in the timeliest fashion in terms of judges, court availability and quality, experienced advocates to deal with these important prosecutions?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. As always, he is absolutely right: we have to strike this important balance in respect of digital evidence to ensure that the evidence to put people behind bars is appropriately obtained without compromising the right to a fair trial. No one here wants to do that. He is absolutely correct about capacity as well. The Lord Chief Justice has made that point very powerfully and it is one to which we are acutely alive.

I also welcome the Solicitor General to his place. When asked by Sky News about rape prosecutions, the Prime Minister said that the CPS is not taking rape prosecutions seriously enough. He also refused to commit to the Government’s promise in their rape review to restore rape prosecution rates to 2016 levels by the end of this Parliament. Does the Solicitor General agree with the Prime Minister’s comments? Is this not just another example of victims being abandoned by this Government?

No, that is not the case at all. The really important thing is to look at the actions. One of the things that I was very heartened by in this year’s spending review is that the additional funding that is going into the CPS is extremely significant—it is £80 million. To put that into concrete terms, that means that there will be an additional 100 RASSO prosecutors. The ones I met in CPS west midlands were incredibly motivated, diligent, decent and determined individuals. The Prime Minister is very clear about wanting to see improvements, and he is getting behind it by providing pounds, shillings and pence.

County Lines Drug Dealing: Prosecutions

6. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting offences relating to county lines drug dealing. (904192)

The CPS’s early investigative advice on county lines with the police is making a difference. The majority of county lines offending relates to drug convictions and human trafficking. This year—although these figures do not relate to county lines offending alone—the CPS has secured 36,000 drug convictions and 238 human-trafficking convictions.

I want to place on record my thanks to Norfolk police; last month, it arrested 12 county lines drug dealers in a week-long crackdown against drugs across Norfolk. That is to be hugely applauded. I just want to check: do the police have the right support and, more importantly, does the CPS have all the tools that it needs and the resources to prosecute drug-dealing across our country successfully?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I applaud his police team in Norfolk for their great results. In the east of England, Operation Orochi has led to significant terms of imprisonment imposed on 42 offenders convicted. As of October 2021, the number of county lines operations covered by the operation has been more than halved. They work closely with the police, leading to a high volume of convictions since November 2019.

Covid-19: Recovery of Criminal Justice System

7. What steps she is taking with (a) the CPS, (b) Government Legal Service and (c) Cabinet colleagues to support the recovery of the criminal justice system since the easing of covid-19 restrictions. (904193)

The Law Officers frequently meet the CPS and colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and elsewhere to progress the recovery of the criminal justice system. It is welcome that the Government have significantly increased the budget for the CPS with an additional £85 million at the 2019 spending review and a 12% uplift over the period of this spending review, to help to recruit and retain prosecutors and modernise digital infrastructure. Court capacity plainly plays a part, too; I commend my hon. Friend for his work to increase the judicial retirement age, which will make an important difference.

You will know, Mr Speaker, that I was delighted that the Government took up the cudgels of my private Member’s Bill—the Magistrates (Retirement Age) Bill—and are now legislating to raise the retirement age of magistrates from 70 to 75. On its own, however, that will not solve the substantial backlog that we still have in our courts, particularly our magistrates courts. What other measures can be taken in the meantime, over and above what is already happening, to ensure that we can get through it? Justice needs to be done fairly, but also efficiently.

As always, my hon. Friend makes an important point. Magistrates courts hear more than 90% of all criminal cases—a point that is not always given the emphasis that it might be. In some parts of the country, magistrates courts have cleared their backlogs completely; indeed, some did so many months ago. To support that recovery, the Government took measures including sitting additional courts on Saturdays and installing plexiglass in more than 450 courtrooms. We want to keep up that momentum with the so-called trial blitz courts planned for later this year. We are fortunate in this country to have dedicated and public-spirited magistrates who continue to do an exemplary job in ensuring that justice is done.

CPS Prosecutions: Hate Crime

8. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting cases of hate crime. (904195)

Hate crime can have a devastating impact on individuals and communities. In the last year, the CPS prosecuted more than 10,000 such offences; in 79% of those cases that resulted in a conviction, the court agreed to impose a sentence uplift to reflect this important aggravating factor. Let the message go out: those who seek to divide our society through hate can expect a robust response.

Hate crime is clearly a serious concern right across this country. Do local Crown Prosecution Service areas have all the resources that they need to take these measures on and prosecute people for hate crime?

Yes, and those resources are growing. CPS London North maintains hate crime co-ordinators and inclusion and community engagement managers to provide a single point of contact on all aspects of hate crime prosecution. It has achieved some of the highest sentence uplift statistics anywhere in the country, with increases handed down in 83% of cases.

Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

9. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the unduly lenient sentence scheme in 2021. (904196)

In 2021, the unduly lenient sentence scheme has continued to ensure that the seriousness of offending is properly reflected in the sentence imposed. More than 100 cases have been heard by the Court of Appeal this year. I have personally presented cases, securing an increase in the sentence imposed on a rapist earlier this year.

Along with many in this House, I have become increasingly concerned about unduly lenient sentences for rape, especially in relation to crimes committed against minors. Last month, a man was jailed after being found guilty of six counts of rape of a 14-year-old, two counts of sexual activity with a child, and other sexual offences; he was sentenced to only nine years’ imprisonment. That follows reports that last year a man was jailed after being found guilty of raping a three-year-old in a wood; his sentence, too, was nine years.

Those prison sentences are simply not long enough. Will the Attorney General agree to look at those cases and meet me to discuss what more can be done to ensure that the sentences match the crimes committed?

My hon. Friend raises some very grave cases. I assure her that such offences are within the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme, and that the Solicitor General and I will consider every such referral to us with the greatest care.

I am proud of our work in respect of offending against minors. In three recent cases concerning child sexual abuse, offenders’ non-custodial sentences were replaced with immediate custody, which I hope sends a clear message about how seriously such offending is taken.

CPS Prosecutions: Serious Crime

Through its three national central casework divisions and 13 regional complex casework units, the CPS continues to work with the National Crime Agency and other criminal justice partners to bring offenders to justice for a range of serious crimes, including serious and organised crime, terrorism, and serious and complex economic crime.

The Serious Fraud Office has made clear that a new criminal offence of failure to prevent economic crime would significantly increase the number of successful prosecutions for fraud. What steps are we taking to bring that about?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. Economic crime is not a victimless crime; it strikes at the very heart of the society that we want to be. I am pleased to see that the Law Commission published its discussion document on corporate criminal liability earlier this year. Both the CPS and the SFO provided input, and took part in a series of events to share their operational insights. The Law Commission is aiming to publish an options paper early next year, and will then work with the Government to implement any next steps.