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Attorney General

Volume 711: debated on Thursday 24 March 2022

The Attorney General was asked—

Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

Since the beginning of 2021, thanks to the referrals made by the Solicitor General and by me, sentences have been increased in more than 100 cases. Recently, I personally argued the case of Stephen Gibbs in the Court of Appeal sitting in Cardiff. I welcomed the decision to increase his sentence for attempted murder from 13 years to 20 years and seven months.

Under the unduly lenient sentence scheme, it is currently only possible to submit a request to increase a sentence for causing death by dangerous driving, but the majority of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities are cases of causing death by careless driving. What is my right hon. and learned Friend doing to protect victims of crime who are not covered by the unduly lenient sentence scheme?

I acknowledge the argument that my hon. Friend makes very energetically. She knows that the unduly lenient sentence scheme is reserved for specific offences in which the offender’s culpability is particularly high. There are no immediate plans to extend the coverage of the scheme, but I am pleased that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, will allow us to take extensive action on road traffic offences, including by increasing the maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs to life imprisonment.

The Attorney General will be aware of the horrendous case of my constituent Debbie Leitch, who died at the hands of her mother Elaine Clarke, who has since been sentenced to nine years and seven months in prison for her appalling actions. Will my right hon. and learned Friend meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), following our recent letter, to discuss the case with a view to considering whether the sentence is unduly lenient?

It is indeed a tragic case and I extend my sympathies to all those who knew and loved Debbie. I thank my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) for bringing the case to the attention of the Law Officers. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General has reviewed the sentence imposed with the utmost care and decided to refer it to the Court of Appeal. It is now a matter for the Court to decide whether to increase the sentence.

Does the Attorney General agree that steps need to be taken to give the judiciary the freedom to apply greater sentences without the victim or the family having to present the case again, as is currently required?

The unduly lenient sentence scheme affords the Law Officers an important power. The judiciary generally gets it right in the vast majority of sentencing decisions. In the few instances in which Law Officers, after careful consideration, consider a sentence to be unduly lenient—when there has been an error—the case is referred to senior judges in the Court of Appeal to look at the sentencing exercise and reach their own conclusion.

Violence Against Women and Girls

3. What steps she is taking to increase the number of prosecutions relating to violence against women and girls. (906255)

Tackling violence against women and girls is a central mission of this Government and, indeed, of independent prosecutors. More than 10,400 suspects were charged with domestic abuse offences in the most recent quarter for which data is available, with a conviction rate of more than 75%. Following a successful spending review, the Crown Prosecution Service is recruiting prosecutors and other staff to ensure that even more victims see justice done.

One of my constituents has provided multiple pieces of video evidence and repeatedly reported indecent exposure by a neighbour, aimed at his young daughters. The police repeatedly changed the staff who were handling the case, and then the CPS declined to prosecute for lack of evidence and because the flasher had moved. Will the Attorney General empower the CPS to prosecute more such crimes so that women and girls can have faith in the justice system to help them?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that important case. Under the victims code that we introduced in April last year, victims have the opportunity to seek a right to review—in other words, a right to ask the CPS to reconsider a decision—and I know many individuals will take up that opportunity. We have outlawed several offences, such as upskirting, coercive control and non-fatal strangulation, to ensure that more victims get the justice they deserve.


4. What steps she is taking to ensure (a) UK and (b) international law is enforced against (i) the Russian Government and (ii) associated individuals. (906257)

5. What steps she is taking to ensure (a) UK and (b) international law is enforced against (i) the Russian Government and (ii) associated individuals. (906258)

6. What steps she is taking to ensure (a) UK and (b) international law is enforced against (i) the Russian Government and (ii) associated individuals. (906260)

The UK is playing a leading role in supporting the Ukrainians in their fight against Russian aggression. Over recent weeks, I have had the privilege of speaking to Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, Iryna Venediktova, for whom I have the greatest respect, as she fights tirelessly for justice and accountability for the people of Ukraine. She and I have signed a memorandum on co-operation, which underlines the UK’s support for accountability and reinforces our joint efforts to gather and preserve evidence for use in future criminal trials.

A month ago today, this aggressive war of Putin’s was unleashed on Ukraine. We continue to stand with the people of Ukraine as they fight for peace. However, I question why the UK’s sanctions, which continue to be slow, have also failed to be robust. Mr Usmanov is clearly laughing at this Government; he has moved hundreds of millions of pounds into irrevocable trusts. Why did the Attorney General not insist that the sanctions regime be made watertight?

I reject that characterisation of our sanctions regime. The UK is leading the world and our allies in terms of the extent and the unprecedented nature of our sanctions package. We have sanctioned more than 1,000 individuals and entities; there were 65 more announcements today. We are seeing the impact, and that is what counts—the impact of the sanctions is having a huge effect on the Russian economy. The rouble has plummeted in value. The stock market has crashed. Inflation has risen. That, not political point scoring, is what is going to beat Putin in this war.

The Government are very quick on announcements, but very slow on action. The Attorney General will be aware of the SLAPP—strategic litigation against public participation—litigation being used by Russian oligarchs to wear down investigative journalists and campaigners. The purpose is not to take them to court, but to bury them under a whole load of requests to produce documents and answer questions; it is to wear down their resources. We need urgent action. Can she say what she is doing to shut down, urgently, the use of SLAPP litigation?

Absolutely. The Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor recently announced urgent action he will be taking to target exactly the SLAPP litigation to which the hon. Gentleman refers. He will be introducing measures, in the public interest, so that we stop the abuse of our legal process and ensure that legal tools are not abused and misused in this way.

We have allowed the system to be misused for a very long time and that is why we are running to catch up now.

What are we doing to gather evidence of war crimes? It was good to see the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken formally accuse Russia of war crimes in Ukraine. Will the Attorney General say what role the UK’s sexual violence in conflict experts could play? It seems clear that rape is being used, once again, as a weapon of war, in Ukraine.

The hon. Lady raises an incredibly worrying point. It does look as if there is very strong evidence to support claims of sexual violence being used in this conflict, which is completely abhorrent and horrifying. We have a strong track record. A few years ago, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office led the way, alongside Angelina Jolie, in raising the profile of this weapon in conflict and in taking concrete action against it. The Foreign Secretary will make an announcement on the issue very soon. On evidence gathering, as I mentioned, I have reached an agreement with the Ukrainian Prosecutor General. My hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is working to lead an international coalition with the International Criminal Court, focusing on evidence gathering and on building resources to assist an independent prosecution, so that we bring war criminals to justice and secure accountability.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome very much the establishment of a war crimes taskforce, on which my right hon. and learned Friend serves, and the additional funding that the Ministry of Justice has given to the International Criminal Court.

The war crimes that are undoubtedly being committed in Ukraine are being committed on the territory of a country that adheres to the conventions of the ICC, which therefore has jurisdiction. Will the Attorney General take on board the very important point made by the chair of the Bar in a speech last night, that even though Putin and his cronies may be beyond our reach at the moment, the bringing of an indictment is itself an important signal that we stand up for the rule of international law? Will she take up the suggestion of working with the legal professions and seconding British lawyers to the ICC to strengthen its investigations team?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He has almost taken the words out of my mouth. I am very pleased in my capacity as leader of the Bar to be working with the Bar Council. There is a huge opportunity to build on the wealth of expertise in the English legal system. We have renowned experts in public international law, and I echo the call made by the chairman of the Bar for all of those in private practice who wish to serve, whether through working with the ICC or to support the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, to get in touch with the Bar Council and the Law Society so that we can channel their efforts to the best possible use.

The Levelling Up Secretary has been boasting for weeks that the Government will seize oligarchs’ mansions, but they have no idea how to do so legally, and by the time they work it out the culprits will be clean away. The Justice Secretary is a sudden convert to anti-SLAPP legislation, biting the hands that used to feed the Tory party, but shows no urgency to legislate. The Attorney General is investigating her own Serious Fraud Office for failures to prosecute, yet the SFO is so starved of money that its yearly budget would not buy one of Abramovich’s yachts. It is pathetic. Do the Government lack the means to bring international criminals to justice, or do they just lack the will?

I am very disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s charge, which is completely unfounded. The reality is that the actions that we have taken are world leading. We introduced emergency legislation not so long ago. We are considering the confiscation of assets, of course at all times within the legal remits and according to due process. What we are doing, and the effect of our actions, is clear: we are starving the oligarchs and those who are funding Putin’s murderous activities of access to their finance. We are going after his corrupt cronies and key businesses directly. We are paralysing the military-industrial complex, and that will be how we strangle the economic funding for this brutal activity.

Given that Russia is not a member of the ICC and will almost certainly refuse to recognise its jurisdiction, what discussions has the Attorney General had with her international partners on alternative forums for prosecution? Does she agree with former Prime Ministers John Major and Gordon Brown that a court could be set up for that purpose, as was the case in Nuremburg?

Of course, all options are on the table, and I will always defer to my counterpart in Ukraine, the Prosecutor General, in my efforts to support her and her choice of route for redress. While we welcome the focus on accountability, we believe that the International Criminal Court is the right place for those responsible for committing these atrocious crimes in Ukraine to be held accountable for their actions. That is why, led by the Deputy Prime Minister, we are focusing all our energy, all our assistance and all our resources on the ICC prosecutor’s independent investigation.

Economic Crime

The Government’s plans on tackling financial crime are outlined in the economic crime plan, which recognises the important roles played by both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office. In the year ending September 2021, the CPS prosecuted over 7,600 defendants where fraud and forgery were the principal offence, and the conviction rate was 84.9%. Over the last five years, the SFO has secured reparations for criminal behaviour from organisations that it has investigated, totalling over £1.3 billion.

I thank the Solicitor General for that answer. It is important that the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office adapt to the ever more sophisticated techniques that criminals are using to commit fraud and evade prosecution. Can my hon. Friend share any examples where either the CPS or the SFO has sought to change its working practice to evolve with the changing nature of economic fraud?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the threat is evolving, which is why the Crown Prosecution Service has decided to merge its specialist fraud, organised crime, and international headquarter divisions into one new directorate—the serious economic, organised crime and international directorate. This will increase flexibility, enhance capacity, build resilience and ensure that learning is shared to improve expertise in tackling economic crime.

I appreciate that answer. Can my hon. and learned Friend update the House on the process of replacing the services currently provided by Action Fraud and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau?

The programme to replace the Action Fraud service is being funded as part of the £400 million investment in economic crime, so no additional money, as I heard sotto voce from the Opposition Bench. As well as continuing improvements to the reporting process, including the call centre and website, the new programme will also deliver vastly improved data and intelligence capabilities, and 350 new investigators and intelligence officers.

Economic crime and fraud are not simply at the very top level; they are volume crime. They are the most likely crimes to affect ordinary people, and neither the police nor the authorities are equipped to deal with them. Is it not about time that we got serious on economic crime and made sure that we invested in the investigating process that can make a real difference, as that is not happening?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: fraud is a cruel crime. It is not a victimless crime and it can destroy lives. That is why it is so important that the proper resources are allocated, as I indicated. A total of 7,600 individuals have been prosecuted for fraud, with an 85% conviction rate. We also have £400 million more going in. Moreover, over the past five years, £500 million has been secured by the CPS in confiscation orders, returning more than £120 million to victims of fraud.

At the heart of any legislation on economic crime is the basic principle that anybody who wants to make money in the UK needs to obey the UK’s laws. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that P&O had “broken the law”, that we will be “taking action” against it, and that we will take it to court

“under section 194 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992”.—[Official Report, 23 March 2022; Vol. 711, c. 325.]

Can the Solicitor General tell us, as part of the team of Government lawyers, whether he agrees with the Prime Minister’s statement? Does the statement reflect the team’s own legal advice to the Prime Minister, and, assuming that it does, what are the next steps in the legal proceedings that the Government intend to take against P&O for breach of the 1992 Act?

The Government absolutely deprecate and abhor the actions that have been taken by P&O, and the Prime Minister was very clear about that. What we will not do is indulge in point-scoring, but we will take every possible step within the law. The right hon. Lady will understand that that requires an important liaison with the Insolvency Service to ensure that we know what the position is. If the law allows for a prosecution, I can tell her that this Government will not hesitate to take every action necessary.

Online Fraud

8. What steps she is taking to (a) ensure prosecution of people who commit online fraud and (b) recover stolen funds for victims of online fraud. (906262)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. Economic crime is highly complex, often cyber-enabled and spans multiple jurisdictions. In recognition of that and to keep pace with the changing nature of crime, the CPS published its first ever economic crime strategy last year, which affirms its commitment to improving criminal justice outcomes and supporting victims. The conviction rate for fraud and forgery over the past period was 84.9%, and, as I indicated, in the past five years £568 million was enforced in respect of CPS-obtained confiscation orders.

Has the Minister seen the Age UK report and the way that organised crime, which includes highly sophisticated big players, is targeting elderly people? A total of 800,000 elderly people were defrauded last year. Somebody is defrauded every few seconds in this country. These players are homing in on our most vulnerable people, and what we are doing as a Government—no, what he and his colleagues are doing as a Government—seems to be amateur when compared with these professionals.

That is why I am so delighted that at the spending review the Government allocated a full £400 million to boost efforts in the fight against crime—money that goes to the National Economic Crime Centre, the National Crime Agency and the police—together with 20,000 additional police officers. Those fraudsters need to understand that there is nowhere for them to hide.

Fraud and Economic Crime

10. What steps she is taking to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the (a) Serious Fraud Office and (b) Crown Prosecution Service in tackling fraud and economic crime. (906264)

Economic crime is highly complex. In the year ending September 2021, the CPS prosecuted 7,609 defendants where fraud and forgery were the principal offence, with a conviction rate of 84.9%. As for the SFO, it performed strongly last year: in 2021, it secured three deferred prosecution agreements, including one with Amec Foster Wheeler Energy Limited involving a financial settlement of £103 million. Furthermore, it successfully prosecuted GPT Special Project Management and Petrofac, resulting in just over £100 million in financial penalties.

Between 2013 and 2019, the Serious Fraud Office secured convictions against five corporations out of 43 investigations. We can literally count the number of successful prosecutions on one hand. Does the Attorney General regard that as an acceptable recent track record for the Serious Fraud Office? If not, how does she plan to change it?

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. Just yesterday I met the director of the Serious Fraud Office; I am glad that this year looks like a very active year. The SFO is taking seven trials involving 20 defendants to court in 2022, and will be pursuing those convicted to ensure that funds from criminal conduct are confiscated and victims are rightly compensated. The estimated value of fraud across all seven trials this year is more than £540 million in a number of jurisdictions. That is a great amount of work, and something we should all be getting behind.