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Attorney General

Volume 706: debated on Thursday 6 January 2022

The Attorney General was asked—

Spending Review 2021: Law Officers’ Departments

1. What assessment she has made of the implications of the Spending Review 2021 for the Law Officers’ departments. (904910)

Happy new year, Mr Speaker. May I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on her new role? She is familiar with the position of shadow Attorney General. I look forward to working with her in the future. The Government committed to improving performance across the criminal justice system in the spending review. For example, funding for the Crown Prosecution Service will increase by more than £80 million a year by 2025, which will be used to drive improvements in the prosecution of rape cases and to help to tackle the court backlog.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her answer. What assessment has she made of the way in which that funding will support the police uplift programme, which will in turn help to deliver safer streets in towns such as Blackpool?

The Government will not rest until we have improved public safety. The recruitment of 20,000 new police officers will cut crime and get criminals off our streets. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that there are more than 300 new police officers in Lancashire, his own region, all working to keep our community safe. Of course, the success of those extra police officers will depend on corresponding increases throughout our criminal justice system, so that we have enough resources to deal with the increased workload created. That is why I am pleased that the CPS has recruited more than 300 more prosecutors since 2019, thanks to the Government’s funding.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, and happy new year. It remains to be seen whether the funding allocated is sufficient to tackle the record backlog in court cases facing our country, but may I ask a specific question about one particular aspect of the backlog? This week, magistrates across the country will resume hearing the backlog of cases relating to breaches of covid restrictions over the last two years. Whatever we may think of that process, we know that those magistrates will be put in an impossible position if the laws that the Government are asking them to enforce are not applied equally to individuals working for the Government themselves. Will the Attorney General guarantee that, if Sue Gray concludes that covid restrictions were broken by individuals in Downing Street, there will be no barrier to those individuals facing the same legal consequences as everybody else?

The right hon. Lady makes it clear that she is more interested in scoring political points, frankly, than dealing with the court backlog. When it comes to the primary issue of the court backlog, I am very pleased to see that in the magistrates courts, where, let us be clear, the vast majority of criminal matters are dealt with, we are now seeing a fall in caseloads, going back to pre-pandemic levels. On the question that she actually asked, the process is being led appropriately by Sue Gray. That is the right response. Of course, all recommendations made by that independent process will be considered in the right way.

Strength of the Union

As the Attorney General for England and Wales, I have the Union at the heart of my work. I am pleased that, for example, CPS Wales performs very well: a recent inspectorate report concluded that the Wales CPS area has the highest magistrates court conviction rate across England and Wales. I take this opportunity to thank all our prosecutors based in Wales for their excellent work.

Over the past 18 months, my inbox has been full of people who are frustrated and confused by the differences between the England and Wales covid rules, my constituency being close to the border. As part of the devolution settlement, under the Wales Acts, there is provision for devolution to be suspended temporarily during times of national crisis in order for decisions to be made by Westminster for the whole of the United Kingdom. Will the Attorney General confirm whether she gave any advice to the Government along those lines? If not, what would a national crisis that would trigger such a clause be?

We must respect the arrangements set out in each of the devolution settlements, but I agree with one aspect of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which is that sometimes the rules of other Administrations can be confusing. This week, for example, under Welsh Government guidance it is okay to go to the pub, but not to the office. The vaccine roll-out and the immense financial support provided by the UK Government are two outstanding examples of what can be achieved when we work together as one United Kingdom, co-operating for the good of the Union.

A happy new year to you, Mr Speaker. A key aspect of the Union of which the right hon. and learned Lady is so fond is Scotland’s separate and distinct legal system. Does she agree that any actions taken by the UK Government on legal human rights remedies must continue to respect that, and that any attempt by Westminster to alter those protections against the will of the devolved Administrations would be contrary to the devolution settlement and yet another example of this Tory Government helping—thanks very much—rather than hindering the cause of Scottish independence?

The Law Officers are always concerned about any legislation promoted by the Scottish Parliament and Government that falls outside legislative competence. That is why I was pleased that the Supreme Court agreed with the Government earlier this year on the Bills proposed by the Scottish Government on the UN convention on the rights of the child and on local self-government. Ultimately, we are a United Kingdom. The people of Scotland have voted to remain as part of that United Kingdom, and I only wish that the hon. Lady and her party would respect that will of the people.

Violence against Women and Girls/Hate Crimes: Successful Prosecutions

5. What steps she has taken to increase the number of successful prosecutions relating to (a) violence against women and girls and (b) hate crimes. [R] (904918)

This Government take tackling domestic abuse and hate crime extremely seriously, as shown by the introduction of the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and our commitment to publishing a new hate crime strategy later this year. The CPS is working hard to deliver justice and to protect the public, and it has recently published an ambitious 12-month domestic abuse programme to help narrow the disparity between reporting and criminal justice outcomes.

Clearly not that seriously, certainly in Warwickshire; according to the CPS data, Warwickshire has the lowest conviction rate—47% conviction against prosecution—at 1.3%. Dame Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner, criticised that as the “effective decriminalisation of rape”. She is right, is she not?

No, she is not right. We understand, of course, that we need to do better when it comes to charging rape and to RASSO—rape and serious sexual offences—outcomes. The Director of Public Prosecutions accepts that and I accept that. However, we must be fair about where the problem is, so that we can be frank about the solutions. About 10% of police referrals make it to the CPS and, in the most recent data, we see a slight increase—nationally—in the CPS charging rate when it comes to rape, so there are some early signs of improvement. Above all, we have a great commitment by the CPS and criminal justice partners to improve the situation. The rape review was published last year, and we have seen the RASSO 2025 strategy. Innovative processes around Operation Soteria and Operation Bluestone are changing the way police and prosecutors work to better tackle rape and serious sexual offences, so that victims are better supported through the process.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is important that the CPS and her Department invest in ensuring that we have the best-quality prosecutors for rape and serious sexual offences, as well as the manpower and the technology to deal with delays in disclosure, which is of particular relevance in these cases; but, equally, that we need a whole-systems approach to avoid the very considerable level of attrition that comes before, as she rightly observes, cases ever get to the charging stage? That means co-operation, above all, with the police at early stages of the investigation.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he puts his finger on the problem. That is why the additional funding that the CPS received last year will partially be dedicated to improving its resources and firepower in dealing with RASSO. We will see a bolstering of specialist RASSO units. A hundred new prosecutors have already been trained in RASSO within the CPS, and within the next three months 70 experienced staff will be appointed into RASSO posts in the pathfinder areas.

I highlight the fact that Operation Soteria and Operation Bluestone in Avon and Somerset are being rolled out more widely throughout the CPS areas. They are pioneering better working between police officer and prosecutor, earlier investigative advice and greater support for victims to turn around the decline when it comes to victims’ withdrawal from the process; that is critical to the success of a prosecution.

I thank the Minister for that response. Not only is there clearly a need for successful prosecutions, but women—ladies—and girls feel particularly vulnerable and fearful in society today. What is being done across the UK to ease, protect and restore confidence among ladies and ensure that they feel safe on the streets of this country?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that question. He is absolutely right, and that is why we have rolled out an increased number of independent sexual violence advisers. That is why we are rolling out a victims code, because complainants—

Order. This is a supplementary to the original question. Normally it is taken by the same person who answered the first question. I believe in job sharing, but this is taking it a little bit too far.

I apologise, Mr Speaker. I wanted the Chamber to enjoy the oratory and eloquence of my hon. Friend, but we will be denied that for a few moments longer.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is right, but I want to emphasise the commitment to fighting violence against women and girls that this Government have not only talked about, but demonstrated through actions. Not only have we introduced new offences—for stalking, coercive and controlling behaviour, revenge porn and upskirting—but, as announced this week, we are making a new criminal offence of non-consensual photographing of breastfeeding women in public, and we have provided support on domestic abuse through our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021. This Government have pioneered a plethora of historic changes to show that we support women and girls and to make Britain a safer place for them.

Nationality and Borders Bill: Compatibility with International Law

6. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the compatibility of the Nationality and Borders Bill with international law. (904919)

To be clear, the UK prides itself on its leadership within the international system and the fact that it discharges its international obligations in good faith. The Nationality and Borders Bill brings in vital changes to enable this Government, and our immigration and Border Force operatives, to stop the illegal and dangerous trafficking of illegal migrants. I encourage everybody in this Chamber to get behind this vital Bill and support it.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker. The Attorney General may well pride herself on international leadership, but does she therefore agree with the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who recently corrected the Home Secretary’s claim that British citizenship is a privilege, not a right, and pointed out:

“Having a nationality is not a privilege—it’s a human right”

that is protected by UN treaties to which the UK is a party and which the UK is obliged to protect?

What is clear is that we need to take tangible action to deal with the problem of illegal migrants crossing our channel and dangerous traffickers exploiting some of the most vulnerable people in the world, while we also need to fix our broken asylum system. That is why the Nationality and Borders Bill addresses some of these very important issues through tangible proposals. The Home Office will continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options for stopping small boats, and I support that activity.

Does the Minister agree that the Bill helps protect our fight against human trafficking? It will be very interesting to see what the Lords sends back to us, but will the Government continue to commit themselves to ending this evil trade?

There are no two ways about it, and I am proud to say to my hon. Friend that I really support this Government’s attempts to end this evil trade, as he puts it. It is immoral that the criminal people traffickers are taking advantage of people and putting their lives at risk. The people making these crossings do not have the skills or the equipment to traverse some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world safely, and it is of fundamental importance that the Government disrupt this business model and make it untenable.

Over the Christmas holidays, I read “The Lightless Sky”, the account by Gulwali Passarlay of his journey as a child refugee from Afghanistan to the UK. After reading that book, I would ask the Minister—and I recommend that she reads it, too—whether she accepts that human traffickers only exist because of the absence of the safe and legal routes that this Government continue to deny to those who are in desperate need and fleeing for their lives?

We are subject to international obligations that make it clear that, if people have legitimate claims for asylum, there are safe and legal routes through which they may pursue those. To get on an illegally manned vessel and to try to break through our borders illegitimately is dangerous, immoral and unlawful.

Criminal Justice System: Disclosure between Parties

7. What recent steps she has taken to improve working practices on disclosure between all parties in the criminal justice system. (904920)

Effective disclosure is a vital part of the criminal justice process, and it is inseparable from the right to a fair trial. The Attorney General is now undertaking the first annual review of the disclosure guidelines to ensure that this complex area is continually monitored and that issues that can have such profound implications for securing justice for victims are identified and resolved.

I entirely agree with the Solicitor General that providing defendants with full disclosure of the evidence against them is extremely important, but it is also vital to ensure that police are not taken away from their frontline duties by overly bureaucratic requirements. Currently, for example, local officers in Aylesbury have to spend many hours redacting video evidence they send to the CPS before a charging decision is made just in case it is eventually shared with the defence. What can be done to reduce this burden so that police can be where they are most needed, which is on the streets?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for once again raising a really powerful point. In my discussions with police officers up and down the country, this issue of redaction has arisen again and again, and he is right that this is creating a serious administrative burden that absorbs resources that could profitably be deployed elsewhere. That is why I can assure him that this issue is receiving very close and current attention, and I expect to say more on that shortly.

While the digital data extraction forms that were imposed on survivors of rape are now, thankfully, a thing of the past, the culture that led to their introduction by the CPS and the police is, sadly, not. Could I ask the Attorney General how she is ensuring that women who come forward to report being raped receive the dignity, privacy and respect to which they are entitled?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is incredibly important that when complainants are brave enough to make these allegations, they are not then subject to intrusive, unnecessary and disproportionate disclosure inquiries. Getting that balance right is extremely difficult. There is clear guidance in the Attorney General’s guidelines, and the case of Bater-James and Sultan Mohammed is there as well, but we need to go further to make sure that correct, proportionate and fair decisions are made.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to be shadowing the Solicitor General—we have missed him in Shepherd’s Bush.

Last month the Court of Appeal ruled the conviction of Ziad Akle, prosecuted by the Serious Fraud Office, unsafe because there was a material failure of disclosure that significantly handicapped the defence. The court described this as a serious failure by the SFO to comply with its duty and said it was particularly regrettable given that some of the documents withheld had a clear potential to embarrass the SFO. It is difficult to imagine a more damning series of judgments on a prosecuting authority. The Attorney General, having recently expressed full confidence in the director of the SFO, has belatedly announced an inquiry, but the Attorney General superintends the SFO and her office line-manages the director, so will the Solicitor General confirm that this inquiry will be fully independent so that it can examine the Attorney General’s own role in this fiasco as well as that of the SFO and the director?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and for his kind welcome. That judgment was a significant one and we take it extremely seriously, but he is wrong to say that there was a delay, because the Attorney General moved very swiftly to institute a far-ranging and sweeping inquiry. That will take place, and it will take its time because we will need to consider extremely carefully what emerges from it. The SFO is an important prosecuting authority; it needs to do its job properly and fairly, and we will make sure it does exactly that.