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Attorney General

Volume 715: debated on Thursday 26 May 2022

The Attorney General was asked—

CPS: London North

Before I answer my hon. Friend, I inform the House that my friend and close partner, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, is in the Gallery. It gives me great pleasure to welcome her to London to watch Attorney General questions this morning. I recently visited Ukraine to witness first hand the indomitable and inspiring work that she is leading in Ukraine to bring to justice those Russian soldiers suspected of war crimes. The UK is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with our friends in Ukraine. Slava Ukraini.

The Government are, of course, committed to holding the criminal justice system to account for its performance, which is why we are now publishing criminal justice scorecards that focus on regional performance, which make a crucial contribution to our understanding of how the system is working. CPS London prosecuted nearly 39,000 cases in 2021, with almost 29,000—74%—ending in a conviction. That is a 15.2% increase from 2020. The inspectorate recently completed an inspection of CPS London North and I am pleased to report that it found commendable improvements in the prosecution of rape and serious sexual offences.

I associate myself with the Attorney General’s remarks to our friends from Ukraine.

Clearly, one of the most important aspects of CPS performance is how it deals with witnesses and victims, particularly of violent crimes. Can she update the House on how CPS London North has performed against those criteria?

I was pleased that the inspectorate report that looked specifically at performance in CPS London North found that 81.3% of responses to witnesses fully met the standard for being timely and effective. There is always more we can do and I know that the CPS is committed to improving the quality of its communication with victims. I would say, however, that CPS London North was also successful in securing convictions very recently for serious offences and we should record our thanks and gratitude to its team of prosecutors.

I am a co-chair of the all-party group on miscarriages of justice, and we are all conscious that we want the Crown Prosecution Service to be as good as it possibly can be. However, up and down the country—in London and elsewhere—there are serious worries about recruitment and the performance of many members of staff. Could there be a thorough look at the performance of the CPS at the moment?

I regularly visit CPS teams around the country, and there is a huge amount of dedication and commitment to improving performance. No one is under any illusion about the scale of improvement needed. However, we are seeing huge measures, with investment and resources being ploughed into the system nationwide—whether that is Operation Soteria, or the pilots in the south-east and in Avon and Somerset. All around the country, we are seeing better practices, focusing on closer collaboration between the police and the prosecutor, earlier investigative advice and more support for victims. We now have some changes to the disclosure guidelines, which are going to focus on supporting victims. I think that, cumulatively, we are going to see improvements and the early data gives me grounds for optimism.

Violence against Women and Girls: Prosecutions

2. What steps she is taking to increase the number of prosecutions relating to violence against women and girls. (900262)

3. What steps she is taking to increase the number of prosecutions relating to violence against women and girls. (900263)

11. What steps she is taking to increase the number of prosecutions relating to violence against women and girls. (900271)

I have seen at first hand the horrendous damage that these crimes do to victims, particularly when I was honoured to visit the Havens, which is a sexual assault referral centre, and that is why tackling violence against women and girls is a central mission of this Government. Supporting victims from the report to the police right through to trial and sentencing is a service that all victims deserve. I am working very closely with the Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary so that we get a whole-system response to this challenge. I am very pleased to see that there has been a notable change in the volume of prosecutions, which has increased by more than 10% from quarter 2 to quarter 3 in 2021-22.

I thank the Attorney General for her response. In 2020, one in 20 victims of sexual assault reported being drugged or spiked by the perpetrator responsible for their assault, and that was before the terrifying reports last year of young women being injected. Given the scale and seriousness of this spiking epidemic, does the Attorney General regard it as acceptable that just 102 people were convicted for spiking offences in the whole of 2021? What more is being done to tackle this?

I know that the Home Office is looking very closely at the issue of spiking. There will be movement on this because we take it very seriously, and we are very concerned about the increasing number of incidents relating to the spiking of victims as a way of attacking and sexually assaulting them. In the data we are beginning to see on how the system is responding—whether that is the number of referrals the police are making to the CPS, the number of charges that the CPS is passing on to trial and for prosecution, or the actual conviction rate—we are seeing improvements. We want to go further, of course, but we are seeing early signs of improvement.

The Attorney General rightly talked about a whole-system approach, but over the past year I have seen an increasing number of extremely concerning cases involving domestic violence in which, specifically, the CPS, the probation service, the courts and the police all seem to be operating in silos when trying to protect women from abusive ex-partners who continue to abuse and harass them. What is the Attorney General doing to ensure that the various parts of the criminal justice system work together to increase prosecutions and protect these women?

The hon. Member is absolutely right that a whole-system approach is required. That is why the end-to-end rape review was announced last year and we have seen updates on how particularly the CPS is doing in relation to its responsibilities. The CPS recently published a rape strategy and the update to that, which sets out the improvements it has continued to see in every aspect of how it is managing rape prosecutions: better collaboration, as I mentioned; supporting more specialist units; and ensuring more support is given to victims. But I would just gently say that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which I was proud to support as a great initiative by this Government, set out provisions to increase the sentences to be served by rapists and others convicted of sexual assault and I am only sorry that Labour voted against those measures.

We will have to go a little faster. I appreciate that the Attorney General has complicated questions to answer, but we have a lot of business ahead of us today. We are supposed to have only another five minutes. We will obviously take longer, but can we go a little faster—short questions, short answers?

I am sure the Attorney General will have read the damning conclusions, and indeed the horrendous case studies, set out in last month’s joint inspectorate report into post-charge handling of rape cases. Does she accept the report’s findings when it comes to the way the system is failing survivors of rape and will she give us both a commitment and a timetable to implement its recommendations?

We are of course always concerned about the need for more improvement and no one is denying that challenge. However, the CPS is committed to driving up the number of rape prosecutions and I am pleased with the green shoots of progress, which is notable from the recent data. If we compare performance —[Interruption.] This is not to be dismissed or laughed at. Since quarter 4 of 2018, the volume of CPS rape charges has increased by 24%. We have also seen that the rape conviction rate is 70%. Those are grounds for optimism. I do not deny that there is more to do, but we are seeing movement in the right direction.

Nowhere is there worse violence being committed against women and girls than that by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Can the Attorney General assure the House that she will give every assistance to the Ukrainian prosecuting authorities to ensure that prosecutions will one day take place?

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that important issue. That is exactly the subject for discussion today and tomorrow with my friend the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, who has come to London at my invitation. I was honoured to go to Ukraine to see at first hand some of her work. What is remarkable about the leadership and fortitude the Ukrainian Prosecutor General is demonstrating is that she has already brought and led some charges and prosecutions of Russian suspects and one Russian soldier has already been sentenced for a war crime. That is remarkable, given the circumstances in which she and the Ukrainians are working.

In England, modern slavery victims are helped by victim navigators to get the criminals to trial. Unfortunately in Wales, in the last seven years, there have only been two successful prosecutions under modern slavery legislation where people have been put in prison. Will the Attorney General look at expanding the victim navigator scheme to Wales in association with the great charity Justice and Care?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. He is a doughty campaigner on this subject and I commit to looking more into what can be done.

May I add my welcome to our friends from Ukraine?

In January, the Attorney General told the House:

“This Government take tackling domestic abuse and hate crime extremely seriously”.—[Official Report, 6 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 142.]

Why, therefore, has she spent the months since then taking the BBC through the High Court to protect an MI5 informant who attacked one partner with a machete and another partner predicted will kill a woman if he is not challenged and exposed? One of his victims is now taking her case to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, but does this not demand a fuller investigation? Rather than disregard the interests of domestic violence victims where the security services are involved, will the Attorney General support an inquiry by the Intelligence and Security Committee into the handling of this case and whether it raises wider concerns that agents are able to use their status to evade criminal responsibility?

Of course, any allegation of domestic abuse or sexual assault on victims is horrendous. On no account does anyone in this Government condone that behaviour. I was very pleased with the result at court of our application for an injunction, because there are national security interests, and it is vital that those are balanced in any matter.

The Government are taking huge steps to support victims of domestic abuse. We passed a landmark piece of legislation, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which brought in key measures, key duties and investment to support those who are victims of this heinous crime. I hope the Labour party will get behind that ongoing work.

Serious Economic Crime

4. What assessment she has made of the Serious Fraud Office’s ability to tackle serious economic crime in 2022-23. (900264)

6. What assessment she has made of the Serious Fraud Office’s ability to tackle serious economic crime in 2022-23. (900266)

In the past five years, the Serious Fraud Office has secured reparations for criminal behaviour from organisations it has investigated totalling over £1.3 billion. That sum is over and above the cost of running the SFO itself. In addition to recent convictions leading to fines and confiscation orders totalling more than £100 million, just this week Glencore Energy has indicated that it intends to plead guilty to seven bribery counts brought by the SFO in relation to its oil operations in Africa.

Serious fraud is too often conducted by the powerful and the rich, which makes it hard to investigate, difficult and complex. That is equally the reason why we must focus on this area above all to demonstrate equality before the law. Will my hon. and learned Friend say how many fraud trials the SFO will conduct this year, and the estimated value of those fraud cases? Does he have a plan to increase that number?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot have a situation where, just because the fraud is complex, it is beyond the reach of the law. That is why I am pleased that this year the SFO is taking forward seven prosecutions involving 20 defendants on a total of 80 counts, comprising alleged fraud valued at over £500 million. The alleged frauds include investment fraud, fraudulent trading and money laundering.

The Solicitor General will be aware that the Serious Fraud Office has recently suffered a series of humiliating defeats in the courts and received heavy criticism from judges, not least in the ENRC case last week, in which the High Court criticised a former SFO director for

“gross and deliberate breach of duty”.

Given that the taxpayer now faces a significant bill, will my hon. and learned Friend ensure that the report commissioned from Sir David Calvert-Smith is published in full so that this House can consider his recommendations?

My hon. Friend has raised two points: ENRC and the Sir David Calvert-Smith review. Those are, of course, separate matters, because the Unaoil matter is distinct. In respect of ENRC’s civil case against the SFO, it is important to note that the judge found against ENRC on the overwhelming majority of its allegations against the SFO. My hon. Friend is correct about the review being led by Sir David Calvert-Smith, which is focusing on the findings of the Court of Appeal in the Unaoil case. The Attorney General has committed to publishing the findings of the review, and I am happy to restate that commitment today.

Since 2016, the Serious Fraud Office has convicted just five fraudulent companies, but it has negotiated deferred prosecution settlements with another 11. Does the Solicitor General share my concern that when the SFO detects corporate fraud, its instinct is to negotiate instead of prosecuting and convicting those responsible?

The hon. Lady is right that it is always important to be vigilant about the point she raises, but I would make two points. First, in looking at the deferred prosecution agreements, we should just consider what has been achieved over the past five years: £1.3 billion has been taken off companies that have acted in a fraudulent way, in agreements sanctioned by the courts. As I have indicated, this year there will be seven trials in respect of 20 defendants on 80 counts, in respect of fraud worth more than £500 million. It is good news that just this week, Glencore has indicated that it will plead guilty to serious fraud, and it will be sentenced accordingly.

May I, on behalf of my fellow members of the Justice Committee, echo the welcome that has been given to the Prosecutor General for Ukraine?

The prosecution of serious fraud has had significant success and I am glad that the Solicitor General recognises that. I have written to him in relation to the Calvert-Smith report, as many of us believe that confidence in the system demands full publication. Will he commit to looking earnestly and carefully at the concerns about gaps in substantive criminal law which sometimes create greater challenges for prosecutors in corporate fraud cases, for example the test in relation to corporate liability in criminal cases and whether there is a case for a duty to prevent, as is the case in other common law jurisdictions?

As always, my hon. Friend makes an absolutely critical point. Yes, there are convictions taking place. We can talk about Glencore, Petrofac and others, but he is absolutely correct that we must consider whether the law is there to meet the changing circumstances. The point he makes about corporate criminal liability is one that we are looking at very closely, not least in light of the Law Commission’s conclusions. If there are gaps in the law, we will fill them.

Stalking and Coercive Behaviour

5. What recent assessment she has made of the CPS’s ability to effectively prosecute cases of (a) stalking and (b) coercive behaviour. (900265)

Stalking and coercive and controlling behaviour are serious crimes which disproportionately harm women. Prosecutions for both have increased in the years since the offences were created. In the case of coercive and controlling behaviour, they have risen from just five in 2015 to 1,403 in 2020-21. I am pleased to say that the conviction rate for domestic abuse cases in the last quarter for which data is available was 76%.

The Government first legislated to deal with stalking and coercive behaviour in 2012 and 2015 respectively. Can my hon. and learned Friend assure me that the Government will continue to prioritise tackling violence against women and girls?

My hon. Friend is right. Those are just two elements of violence against women and girls. I am pleased that in the last decade the Government have: outlawed upskirting; criminalised sending revenge porn images; created a standalone offence of non-fatal strangulation; passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015; introduced the Domestic Abuse Act 2021; banned virginity testing and hymenoplasty; and reversed the decision to automatically release sexual offenders at the halfway point of their sentences. Those who commit crimes against women should expect condign punishment.

Northern Ireland Protocol

7. What recent advice she has received on the legality of the Government’s plans to amend primary legislation to adjust elements of the Northern Ireland protocol. (900267)

I cannot comment specifically on any advice that I may or may not have received. It is not uncommon or inappropriate for Law Officers to seek advice, both from their officials and external specialist counsel. The Foreign Secretary’s statement to the House last week set out the Government’s proposals. She will be introducing primary legislation to address elements of the Northern Ireland protocol. I refer the hon. Member to that statement.

I thank the Attorney General and I appreciate the constraints within which she has to work on this matter. The Government are, of course, well within their rights to bring forward legislation to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom’s single economic market and protect the Union. Will the Attorney General take the opportunity today, from the Dispatch Box, to spell out to the misinformed US Congress delegation visiting Northern Ireland that defending, upholding and protecting the Union is consistent with the New Decade, New Approach agreement and consistent with the Belfast agreement? Will the Government move expeditiously—that is, before the summer recess—on bringing forward legislation?

The Bill that is proposed will take vital steps to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom, our precious Union, and protect peace, which is cemented by the Belfast agreement. It will include provisions which will ensure the security of the common travel area, the single electricity market and north-south co-operation. It will propose that goods moving and staying within the UK are freed of unnecessary bureaucracy through our new green channel, underpinned by data-sharing arrangements, including a trusted trader scheme, to provide the EU with real-time commercial data. All those measures are consistent with the Belfast agreement and consistent with Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. I urge all Members here and parliamentarians abroad to support them.

The Attorney General said again today that there is a long-standing convention that prevents her from discussing either the fact or the content of her legal advice on the Northern Ireland protocol, which makes it all the more remarkable that, on Wednesday 11 May, The Times newspaper and BBC “Newsnight” not only disclosed the fact of her legal advice, but actually quoted from its contents. Let me ask her a very straightforward question that requires only a yes or no answer: did she personally authorise the briefings to The Times and “Newsnight” regarding her advice on the protocol—yes or no?

I take the convention incredibly seriously; it is a running thread through the integrity, robustness and frankness with which Law Officers can provide advice. I do not comment on media speculation, and that is the Government’s line. [Interruption.] The measures proposed there are to protect peace in Northern Ireland, to protect the Belfast agreement and to protect our precious United Kingdom—[Interruption.]

Order. The question has been asked. It is simply not right for the—[Interruption.] The Attorney General is on her feet uttering words. If the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) is not happy with the answer, that is a different matter. It is not correct for her to sit there shouting. [Interruption.] No, that is it. The right hon. Lady has asked the question and the Attorney General is giving her response.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I take the Law Officers’ convention incredibly seriously and I do not comment on media speculation. That is a firm position of the Government. There are big differences between the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and myself, and I am very disappointed at her line of attack. [Interruption.] I love the United Kingdom; the right hon. Lady is embarrassed by our flag. I am proud of the leadership that the United Kingdom has demonstrated; she wants us to be run by Brussels and wants to scrap Trident. My heroes are Churchill and Thatcher; hers are Lenin and Corbyn. [Interruption.] When it comes to UK leadership in the world, Labour does not have a clue—[Interruption.]

Order. We will stick to the specific subject of the question. If the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury is not satisfied with the answer, that is another matter. She will have to come back and ask it again another time.

The Attorney General’s advice to the Prime Minister was reported to have said that the Good Friday agreement takes “primordial significance” over the Northern Ireland protocol. Does she accept that the Good Friday agreement sits alongside other agreements, rather than takes precedence, and that it should not be used as a basis to walk away from the deal that the UK Government signed? Will she commit to publishing the legal advice in full?

I will not repeat my answer, but we do not comment on media speculation and I respect and take incredibly seriously the Law Officers’ convention. The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that the Government will publish a statement summarising their legal position shortly. We will not publish legal advice, if it has been given—the content or the fact of it—and our overriding responsibility is to the Belfast agreement and the peace process. The current arrangements with the EU are undermining this, which is why we have to act now.