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Attorney General

Volume 708: debated on Thursday 10 February 2022

The Attorney General was asked—

Crown Prosecution Service

Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate recently published a report on CPS performance in the west midlands, and it is due to report on Yorkshire and Humberside in April. I am pleased to say that, despite the pressures of the pandemic, the report on the west midlands found that commendable improvements had been made, including in seeking orders to protect complainants and witnesses, and in handling third-party disclosure.

Youth crime plagues several parts of Rother Valley; there are hotspots around Greenlands Park in North Anston, the market area in Dinnington, and the Queen’s Corner in Maltby. How is the CPS tackling serious youth crime and youth antisocial behaviour in Rother Valley and across the whole of South Yorkshire?

My hon. Friend is an energetic campaigner and spokesman for those of his constituents who are, sadly, afflicted by crime. The simple answer to his question is: more prosecutors, better training and closer liaison with the police. The CPS has an area youth justice co-ordinator, who is responsible for local training and sharing best practice. Last month, the CPS team in South Yorkshire secured a murder conviction and a life sentence with a 17-year minimum for Kyle Pickles, who was responsible for the tragic murder of 15-year-old Loui Phillips. I hope that Loui’s family can take some solace from the fact that justice was done in that tragic case.

I thank the Attorney General for her response. I have written to her about the need for the CPS to better understand local circumstances when making decisions. Will she look again at the possibility of co-locating CPS lawyers in local police stations, in order to ensure that they make the best possible decisions, based on local knowledge?

I have seen my hon. Friend’s letter. The point that he raises is critical to the success of the work of the CPS and the police. Closer liaison and better working between police and investigators creates better outcomes for victims and at trial. That is why I am pleased that the west midlands is an Operation Soteria area—that operation is pioneering and institutionalising closer working, by ensuring early investigative advice, improving action plans, and ensuring closer and better scrutiny of the decisions of the police and the CPS. It is a great area where there is some good work.

Financial Crime

8. What steps she is taking to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the (a) Serious Fraud Office and (b) CPS in tackling fraud and economic crime. (905581)

In 2020-21, the CPS prosecuted over 6,500 defendants for fraud, with an 85.6% conviction rate. Meanwhile, in the last five years, the Serious Fraud Office have secured court orders requiring the payment of over £1.3 billion from defendants to the taxpayer. We are determined to build on that to make the United Kingdom a more hostile environment for all forms of economic crime, including fraud.

But the truth is that the scandal of the bounce back loans is enormous. We know now that financial crime is being driven by very sophisticated crime syndicates. My constituents want to know when the Government are going to get serious about this. Where is the economic crime Bill? Where is the real focus on trying to get these billions of pounds back? They have been stripped from the Government, under the most incompetent Chancellor of the Exchequer I have seen in my 40 years in Parliament.

To deal with that last point, I find that an extraordinary point to make. It was this Chancellor who ensured in the hon. Member’s constituency that the money was rolled out to save jobs in Huddersfield and we make absolutely no apology for that—millions of pounds to save lives.

Where the hon. Member is right is that fraud shatters lives and destroys trust. We are determined to deal with that. That is why this Government put £400 million in the spending review to support the National Economic Crime Centre and the National Crime Agency to ensure we crack down on fraud. He will see an awful lot more prosecutions, I assure him.

I thank the Minister for that response. However, overall, reports of fraud went up by 33% from 2020-21 but the number of police officers dealing with economic crime has increased by just over 6%. What is he doing to ensure the police and the prosecuting authorities are properly resourced to deal with the country’s rising tide of criminal fraud?

At the 2019 spending review, the CPS received over £80 million. At this spending review, the Government awarded an additional 12% to boost the number of prosecutors and the capability. In addition, as I indicated, £400 million is to be allocated to the NECC and the NCA. That is over and above the funding that has gone into the taxpayer protection taskforce: £100 million and 1,200 staff. This Government are serious about cracking down on economic crime and we are delighted to support those efforts.

Might I say, Mr Speaker, that the Law Officers are entitled to perhaps a good half an hour of the House’s time as well?

The Solicitor General probably has more experience of prosecuting serious fraud hands on than anyone else in this House. From my own experience at the Bar, I know he is right when he says that fraud is not a victimless crime. Does he agree that we need a joined-up approach across Government to tackle this effectively, not just the excellent work that is being done to improve the Crime Prosecution Service’s results, but support from the Home Office to ensure that Action Fraud is not the black hole it is at the moment for many people who lose money in what are termed small-scale, lower-value frauds, but are massively important to them? At the other end of the scale, we need to look at tightening up our laws on corporate criminal responsibility, so we can catch the high-level fraudsters as well. We need approaches on all those fronts.

As so often, my hon. Friend speaks authoritatively. He is absolutely right that fraud shatters lives and can destroy people’s future in the process. He is right that we need to ensure that the most serious frauds are properly prosecuted—which is why the Serious Fraud Office has received additional funding in the spending review—but also that so-called lower-level crimes are properly resourced. That is why the special crime division of the CPS is doing important work, and why it is increasingly getting the resources it needs to ramp up its capability to take the fight to fraudsters.

This is hard to believe, but on 4 February this year Peter Swailes junior was sentenced for a crime that involved financial fraud. A person was kept in his shed for up to 40 years. The CPS managed to get a conviction, but he was not sentenced to any time in prison. I wonder whether the Attorney General would look at the case to see if it was unduly lenient.

I must admit, I would like an answer but we have to be careful that supplementaries really are linked to the question, which was about financial crime. I think the person mentioned in the hon. Gentleman’s question will have suffered financially as well so I am sure the Minister can answer accordingly.

We will of course look into that case. Sentencing is a matter for the independent courts, but there is a power to refer cases if they are unduly lenient. I am happy to give that case close attention.

Lord Agnew resigned as a Government Minister because the Treasury

“appears to have no knowledge of, or little interest in, the consequences of fraud to our economy or society.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 January 2022; Vol. 818, c. 20.]

The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy should resign for saying that fraud is not a crime people experience in their day-to-day lives, but what about the Law Officers’ culpability? Will the Solicitor General tell us why, according to the latest figures we have obtained from his Department, the Crown Prosecution Service has cut the number of specialist fraud prosecutors by more than a quarter in the past six years, from 224 at the end of 2015 to 167 at the end of 2021?

I send our best wishes to the shadow Attorney General as she recovers.

The hon. Gentleman is not right in the way he characterises the Government’s approach. He did not mention, as I respectfully suggest he ought to have, the £100 million that was invested in the taxpayer protection taskforce. That is 1,200 staff who have dealt with 13,000 inquiries in respect of fraud and recovered £500 million already and expect to recover significantly more. It is not just about the CPS; what about the National Cyber Security Centre, which took down 73,000 scams last year? I am pleased to note that the CPS has received an additional 12% in funding over the course of this spending review period. It is ramping up its capability and taking the fight to fraudsters.

Rule of Law: Government

3. What steps she is taking to help ensure that the Government act in accordance with the rule of law. (905575)

The rule of law lies at the heart of the UK constitution and the Law Officers have a particular role in respect of upholding the rule of law. Together with the Solicitor General, I take that responsibility very seriously wherever we are called on to give advice.

On the morning of 8 December, the Attorney General went to Downing Street to advise the Prime Minister after the emergence of the now infamous video of staff in Downing Street joking about parties. That lunch time, the Prime Minister came to this Chamber to say that no parties had taken place in Downing Street and that no covid rules had been broken. Did the Attorney General approve of those comments? If so, was she colluding with the Prime Minister, or did he mislead her?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valiant attempt, but he should be aware of the Law Officers’ convention, which means I am prevented from commenting on the fact or the content of any legal advice provided by Law Officers to members of the Government.

From their early work on Prorogation to the now daily revelations about lockdown-busting parties, this Government have had a fair few brushes with the rule of law. I know the Attorney General cannot comment on an ongoing criminal investigation, but will she tell us whether, when the investigation is concluded and all the 50 email questionnaires come back, anyone found to have breached lockdown regulations, whatever their rank, will face the same consequences as Joe Public did? Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), if there have been breaches of the ministerial code, will there be resignations?

The Prime Minister has made his position clear and I am not going to add any more in the light of the live police investigation. The hon. Lady mentioned the rule of law; fundamental to the rule of law is democracy. I am proud to support this Prime Minister, who has honoured democracy by delivering Brexit and is now leading not just the UK but the world in beating covid. Had the Labour party been in charge, it would have cancelled Brexit, not delivered it, and we would have been in more lockdown, not less. On the big calls, Labour gets it wrong.

Thanks for that peroration but, to come back to reality, this week the Leader of the Opposition was obstructed while entering this House by disorder on the streets outside following the Prime Minister’s inflammatory remarks at that Dispatch Box. It is the Attorney General’s job to advise Ministers, including the Prime Minister, on acting in accordance with the rule of law, so what advice does she have now to prevent his behaviour from leading to any further breakdown in law and order?

All violence is unacceptable, and I am grateful to those police officers who stepped in to assist the Leader of the Opposition. No one should have to endure that experience. The Prime Minister has spoken on the subject; I am not going to add any more to his comments. What I will say is that on the big calls Labour gets it wrong, and on the things that matter, this Prime Minister and this Government are leading us through covid and international diplomacy against Russian aggression.

Was the Attorney General able to read an interesting article this week by her noble Friend, former Conservative Minister Baroness Altmann, warning of a “slippery slope” towards authoritarian rule and an elected dictatorial elite seeking to override Parliament? Whether it is undermining judicial review, shredding human rights protections, endless ouster clauses, restricted appeal rights or tearing up international treaties, none of it is upholding the rule of law. Is not everything the Attorney General is doing putting the Government above the law?

I strongly refute that suggestion. I am not aware of the report to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but the freedoms and protections that we all enjoy rely fundamentally on the rule of law. I know he understands that: it is an important constitutional principle that demands equality under the law and access to an independent judiciary. The Government are subject to the law. Those are the foundational principles that I adhere to and that I know this Government stick to.

Retained EU Law: Devolved Administrations

5. What recent discussions she has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the devolved Administrations on proposed legislation to make it easier to amend or remove retained EU law. (905577)

The Brexit freedoms Bill will once and for all take back control of the UK legal system, ending the special status of retained EU law and making it easier for the democratically elected UK Government to amend or remove it. The devolved Administrations have been kept informed of the progress of the reviews into retained EU law that will inform the Bill. The Government have engaged regularly with the DAs on a wide range of EU exit and EU engagement issues and we look forward to continuing that close working relationship.

On Friday 28 January, Ministers of the three devolved Administrations were called to a meeting with the Attorney General at very short notice—the very next day, in fact—to discuss the so-called Brexit freedom Bill, which will have significant impact on hundreds of areas controlled by the devolved Governments. The meeting has been described as

“a rushed exercise…with nothing more than a vague verbal briefing”,


“no effort by the UK government to properly consult devolved governments on the details of the plans nor seek their views on their impacts on devolved areas of policy and law.”

Will the Attorney General make an unequivocal commitment today that the devolved Administrations will be consulted extensively before any further decisions are taken that would affect their existing policies, and specifically in relation to retained EU law?

Of course there will be continued and meaningful engagement with all the devolved Administrations in this process. It is an important opportunity and an important moment for our whole United Kingdom, and I very much look forward to the input of all the DAs.

Covid-19 Contracts: Serious Fraud Office

6. What recent discussions she has had with the Serious Fraud Office on the potential level of fraud losses arising from covid-19 related contracts awarded by the Department of Health and Social Care in 2020-21. (905578)

I meet regularly with the director of the Serious Fraud Office to discuss case work and corporate matters. I can confirm that the SFO is indeed investigating a number of suspected fraudulent applications for covid loans, but I can neither confirm nor deny that it is investigating frauds specifically connected to covid-19 contracts awarded by the DHSC.

The Good Law Project has now uncovered the existence of an additional 18 VIP lane contracts, bringing the total to 68. Between them, they were awarded a total of £4.9 billion in personal protective equipment contracts. Gareth Davies, the head of the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General, has said that the Department of Health and Social Care was

“open to the risk of fraud.”,

and that he has not received

“adequate assurance that the level of fraud losses are not material.”

What steps does the Attorney General, or the Minister, advise should be taken to uphold the rule of law and assure the House that contracts awarded through the Government’s VIP lane were not fraudulent?

It is extremely important that we in this House do not inadvertently misrepresent a judgment that has been made in the High Court. In the case that the hon. Gentleman refers to, the Court indicated that the arrangements did not confer any advantage at the decision-making stage of the process; that the company’s offers were very likely to have meant it being awarded contracts even without the arrangements; and that there was sufficient financial due diligence in respect of both sets of contracts. Without seeking to go behind the decision of the Court in that case, it is important that it is placed in its proper context. This Government will abide by the rule of law.

Proceeds of Crime

9. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Serious Fraud Office in recovering the proceeds of crime. (905582)

The SFO has had a very positive year in delivering on its commitment to recover the proceeds of crime. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) will listen, so far in 2021-22 the SFO has obtained more than £44.5 million in new financial orders from the courts, and at the same time it has successfully recovered more than £45 million by enforcing these and existing orders. Those are the largest recorded sums obtained and recovered in a single year by the SFO.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his response and hope that there is some hope therein for my constituents who, just two years ago almost to the day, wrote to me about their personal case of how the London Capital & Finance scandal had impacted them. In October of 2021, the only update offered by the SFO was that investigations were ongoing. What assessment can he make of that progress, and what hope can I offer my constituents?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for very properly pressing this case on behalf of her constituents. The SFO continues to investigate the dealings of London Capital & Finance plc and associated companies. The size and complexity of those cases, including the sheer number of victims and witnesses, means that it can take a significant period for a full investigation to be carried out. I meet the SFO director regularly to discuss casework, and I can assure my hon. Friend that driving forward the fastest possible case progression is a priority for me and for the Attorney General. I want to end with this point: over the last five years, thanks to the work of the SFO, a full £1.3 billion has been returned to taxpayers over and above the costs of running the SFO.

The Minister will be aware of actions that have been taken against the Serious Fraud Office and individuals who work for it by those who seek to hide money—ill-gotten gains—that they wish to launder. It is disturbing that they can take action against individuals who work for agencies that are there to investigate such crimes and criminal behaviour. What action can be taken to protect those individuals from such abusive litigation?

I am happy to discuss that matter with the hon. Gentleman. Where criticisms are made of the Serious Fraud Office, we will have no hesitation in acting robustly and promptly. That is why, for example, just yesterday my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General ensured that an investigation was set up in respect of the findings in the Unaoil case.

Defendants: Mental Health

10. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the CPS in handling cases where the defendant has a mental health condition or disorder. (905583)

New and refreshed training has been rolled out for prosecutors, information sharing between agencies is being improved and the CPS is developing a mental health flag on its case management system. These positive steps were recently recognised in a criminal justice joint inspection report.

Does my hon. and learned Friend welcome the greater use of mental health treatment requirement orders for offenders subject to community orders or suspended sentences? Will he engage with Ministers across justice and health services to ensure that sufficient funding is in place to enable the long-term adoption of this approach in Devon?

Yes and yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to welcome the use of mental health treatment requirement orders, because they provide courts in Devon and elsewhere with a powerful tool to rehabilitate offenders at the same time as ensuring they are properly punished for their crimes. Thanks to record support through the NHS long-term plan funding, plans are on track to introduce primary care MHTRs to half of England by 2023.

In addition to those with mental health disorders, people with other disabilities such as hearing impairment require additional support in court. This House has taken steps to make that happen for those who are hearing impaired. Can the Minister advise what services are deemed necessary for trial proceedings to take place for those with hearing impairment disabilities?

The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point. Whether someone is a victim, a witness or a defendant, they have the right to be able to hear what is going on in court. There are of course facilities already in place—hearing loops and so on—but the court retains the discretion to ensure that special measures are in place so that defendants can have the right to a fair trial and witnesses can have their voices heard.