Skip to main content

Attorney General

Volume 720: debated on Thursday 20 October 2022

The Attorney General was asked—

Disclosure of Evidence

1. What recent steps he has taken to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of disclosure of evidence. (901755)

It is an honour to serve as Attorney General for the second time, and to lead a legal profession that is the envy of the world and a Government Legal Department whose integrity is an example to multiple jurisdictions. I am very proud to hold that position. I also welcome the Solicitor General, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), to his place.

In May, this Government published the review of disclosure and amended the disclosure guidelines to deliver improvements for police, prosecutors and the victims of crime. The new guidelines feature an annex on data protection that will ease the burden on police, leaving them with more time on the beat and to investigate crime.

Within Northumberland, there has been a review that highlights multiple failings in multi-agency communication, and states that lessons have been learned. However, I have been contacted by constituents, and it appears that similar failings are still happening. Will my right hon. and learned Friend please reassure me and the people of Blyth Valley that steps are being taken to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of disclosure?

My hon. Friend is quite right: disclosure is a very important issue, whether in Northumberland or any other part of this jurisdiction. Updated principles on accessing third-party material have strengthened privacy protections for victims, and mandate that officers must have clear written reasons in place before accessing any material such as, for example, therapy notes. My hon. Friend has made an important point about communication between the criminal justice agencies, and we are ensuring that that continues to improve apace.

The Minister will know that this is a very important matter in terms of miscarriages of justice. The Chairman of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), and I chair the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice. Will he look at other countries’ good practice on this, especially the United States?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are always looking and willing to look at how other jurisdictions practise in this sphere. Of course, it is a problem across western jurisdictions, because people now carry on their person so much more data capacity than ever before, which opens up a wide array of questions as to disclosure. The amended disclosure guidelines unequivocally state that indiscriminate access to personal records should never occur, and it is worth noting that the volume of suspects charged has continued to increase quarter on quarter, with a rise from 526 to 550 in quarter 3. That is an increase of 4.6%, so we are moving in the right direction on charges.

Ukraine: Potential Russian War Crimes

2. What steps he is taking to support the investigation of potential Russian war crimes in Ukraine. (901758)

The Government stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine as it defends itself from Russia’s invasion. I am personally dedicated to supporting Ukraine’s search for accountability and justice. I recently spoke to the Ukrainian prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, and heard his important ongoing efforts to investigate and prosecute domestically Russia’s actions on his country’s territory, which are appalling. We discussed, among other things, UK support through the UK-US-EU Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group initiative, which will provide direct practical and advisory support to his office in Kyiv. The UK will continue to play a leading role to ensure accountability for Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

I thank the Attorney General for his answer. This abhorrent invasion is no longer focused on by the media as it should be, and there are atrocities going on every day. Does he agree that every crime committed by Russian soldiers must be taken into consideration and people must be held to account, as must their leader, Mr Putin?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and he is right. The Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group was launched on 25 May by the EU, the US and the UK to ensure efficient co-ordination of respective efforts. It is a very complicated area, but we want to support accountability efforts on the ground. My colleague in the other place, Lord Ahmad, has already announced £2.5 million of UK support for that initiative and for elements of that organisation, including the deployment of mobile justice teams, and training for judges is already under way.

It is obviously important that all the evidence the Ukrainians are gathering to seek out those who have carried out crimes is collated quickly. Is there any help that our Government can give the Ukrainians to do that? It is so important that those people are held accountable before the courts sooner rather than later. What can be done to expedite the process?

Justice delayed is justice denied, and that is as accurate today as it ever was. We have to move at pace, while getting it right, and collating the evidence is important. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are doing everything we can to support the Ukrainians in every conceivable way, including in this area.

I welcome the Attorney General back to his place; he is providing much needed continuity amidst the chaos. Bombings of civilians, conducting executions, torturing war prisoners and sexual violence—independent investigators have concluded that Russia has committed all those crimes. I have heard what the Government intend to do, but what specific steps will they take now and in the future to ensure that perpetrators face the consequences of their actions in an international court?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that. Of course, this is a cross-party issue. We want to see these horrific crimes brought to justice. We will do everything we can to support the Ukrainians in that effort, and we are working across the international community to do that. We have put money into mobile justice teams and training judges for the Ukrainians. We are doing everything we can and will continue to do more.

Prosecution Rates for Rape and Sexual Assault: South-west England

3. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to improve prosecution rates of rape and sexual assault cases in the south-west. (901759)

His Majesty’s Government are committed to improving rape prosecutions and are investing across the justice system. Through Operation Soteria, prosecutors across the south-west have helped to lead the way with a focus on joint working with the police and on early advice, and an enhanced service to victims.

Last week, Devon and Cornwall police were placed into special measures because of their failure to record crime and manage sexual offenders. Fewer than 20 people were convicted of rape in Devon and Cornwall out of 1,500 recorded offences last year. People are losing faith in the CPS and the police. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to extend the sexual offences backlog pilot from London and the north to include the south-west, with a clear focus on reducing the 1,000-day wait for rape victims to get justice in court?

Not least because I am a south-west MP, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. Work is already under way: I mentioned Operation Soteria in the south-west. Specifically in his Plymouth constituency, I know that work is going on with the violence against women and girls commission; I have seen that work and I commend the commissioners for it. There is also a conference happening in the next few weeks and I ask him to keep me updated.

More broadly, on the hon. Gentleman’s substantive question, referrals from the police to the CPS are up for offences of rape, charges are up and prosecutions are up. I am determined that that positive work and positive trend must continue.

In North Devon, I am repeatedly told by police that the CPS requires too much information before it can decide whether to prosecute, that there are many outstanding rape cases and that the delays that victims endure result in some feeling unable to wait the months or even years for cases to progress. Can I meet my hon. Friend to see what can be done to unblock the situation?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. She is right that the workload on our police and the CPS is high. Close working between the police and the CPS is vital. Hot off the press is the refreshed joint national action plan, which was published today and shows that the CPS has seen a 58% increase in charges. I know that she takes the issue incredibly seriously. I would be delighted to meet her, whether here or in her beautiful constituency of North Devon.

Prosecution Rates for Blocking Public Rights of Way

4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in prosecuting protesters who block public rights of way. (901760)

The Government continue to ensure that the police and prosecutors have the necessary tools to tackle the dangerous and highly disruptive tactics used by a small minority of protesters to wreak havoc on people going about their lawful daily lives. In relation to the Insulate Britain protesters, for example, the CPS has so far secured no fewer than 364 convictions in the magistrates court. It continues to take those cases to trial, which shows its resolute determination to bring those criminals to justice.

On Tuesday, the House decided to criminalise grandmothers who hold prayer cards outside abortion agencies. At the same time, quite rightly, we brought in ever more new powers to deal with Just Stop Oil protesters. The difference is that the grandmothers will go away quietly, but the other protesters will keep turning up. There is no point having more and more legislation—we have so much legislation in this area—if the police do not enforce it and the CPS and the courts do not throw the book at these people and give them long custodial sentences.

Of course, the sentencing of such individuals is a matter for our independent criminal justice system, but we have an offence of nuisance on the statute books, as well as offences such as obstructing the public highway, the powers of which have been increased to 12 months’ imprisonment. The Public Order Bill is going through Parliament, which I was rather surprised that the Opposition did not support. As I have said, we are determined that those who seek to disrupt the normal lives of citizens meet the full force of the law. That is what should happen and that is what is happening. The Crown Prosecution Service and the police, as the operationally independent authorities, are working extremely hard in close partnership to bring those people to justice and see that they receive the punishment that they richly deserve.

May I welcome the latest team of Law Officers to their places? I think I missed a stray Solicitor General in the summer recess, between the incumbent and the hon. and learned Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), but it is very hard to keep up these days.

We all know there are well-trusted laws to criminalise this type of behaviour, but is the Conservative party now opposed to all public protest and free speech? Reading its 2019 manifesto, I would have expected to see the Solicitor General and the Attorney General on the picket line opposing fracking, but last night they voted to allow fracking to go ahead, including, I presume, in their constituencies. If the Law Officers are prepared to break a clear promise in such a blatant and cynical way, what example does that set to others in upholding the rule of law?

The hon. Gentleman’s question is not of course on point to the question asked, but the reality of the matter is that the Labour party is embarrassed by the fact that it is on the side of the protesters, rather than those people who wish to go about their lawful duties, and that is why it did not support the Public Order Bill. The offence of public nuisance is available, it has a wide array of penalties available to it and we know the courts will use those powers. I think the Labour party ought to focus on supporting the British public, who wish to go about catching trains, driving along roads and going about their lawful business.

Crown Prosecution Service: Performance in Wales

The CPS inspectorate recently inspected CPS Wales and commended the area for its strong performance—for example, in disclosure and its good handling of victims and witness care. The CPS maintains excellent relationships with its criminal justice partners and is driving improvements throughout Wales.

The CPS and magistrates courts in Wales have done a terrific job. In fact, they were the first to recover from the pre-pandemic backlog. I recently met Jenny Hopkins, the excellent director of the CPS, and I would encourage and ask the Minister to come to Wales, especially a rural setting such as Montgomeryshire, and have a roundtable to discuss access to justice.

I heard about my hon. Friend’s very productive meeting with the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Wales, and he rightly raises the excellent work that is being done by CPS Wales to address the magistrates court backlog. He is absolutely right that it is the first area to recover from the impact of covid, and I would be absolutely delighted to join him on a visit to Wales.

Crown Prosecution Service: Effectiveness in Ensuring Access to Justice

7. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in ensuring access to justice for the victims of crime. (901763)

The CPS is committed to ensuring that victims of crime are properly able to access justice. Last year, the CPS commissioned independent research to better understand what victims want and need, and to identify areas for improvement. On 27 June, the CPS published its response to the research findings, setting out key areas of action to improve how it engages with victims, and this includes delivering a universal service offer for all victims of crime.

I thank the Attorney General for that response, but this Government’s inability to prioritise victims is well documented. Today, the final report of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse will be published. For these victims, their abuse is not historical; they live with it every single day, and they need justice. Will he commit to implement all the recommendations in full?

This Government have repeatedly shown, and rightly so, our support for victims and prioritising the rights of victims. The CPS publishes yearly data—for example, on the victims’ right to review scheme. Nearly 78,000 decisions were made that were eligible for the scheme, under 2,000 decisions were challenged and 270 were found to be wrong—that is 0.35%—but I want to apologise for any decisions that were wrong. Even in that tiny number, it is human lives that are involved. We have focused greatly on the rights of victims, and we will continue to do so.

Can I warmly welcome the reappointment of the Attorney General, and indeed the appointment of the excellent Solicitor General?

It is fantastic news that the number of rape prosecutions is now 30% higher than it was in the last quarter pre covid. Does the Attorney General agree that, if we are going to continue that progress, we need to widen the pipeline of referrals from the police? In that endeavour, we need to ensure that the redaction burden is reduced so that it is proportionate, so that those cases are passed to the CPS and victims get the justice they deserve.

I commend my hon. and learned Friend for his time as Solicitor General. I reiterate, as he has done, that since the last time I was a Law Officer a year-plus ago, the number has increased by 30%, as he rightly says, which is extremely impressive. The CPS has set out its priority areas under the victim transformation programme and we are going to work to those.

I congratulate the Attorney General on what is, this time, his permanent appointment to the role—as much as anything can be considered permanent under this Government. I genuinely hope that he will succeed in restoring to the role of Attorney General some dignity, stability and—dare I say it?—sanity. Will he start by giving me a straight answer to this crucial question: will it be possible to impose real-term spending cuts on the Crown Prosecution Service without making charge rates, court backlogs, and victim support even worse than they are now?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her question. As she knows, this Government have prioritised crime and the victims of crime, and we are, and always have been, the party of law and order. Whatever measures we have to take, including those we had to take when we first came in in 2010 after the appalling disaster of the previous Labour Government, we are focused on dealing with crime and the victims of crime—hence thousands more police officers now being appointed.

Rwanda Relocation Policy

8. Whether he has had discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the compatibility of the Government’s policy to relocate people to Rwanda and other countries with (a) domestic law, (b) international law and (c) the 1951 Refugee Convention. (901765)

By convention, whether the Law Officers have been asked to provide advice, and the contents of any such advice, is not disclosed outside Government.

Will the Attorney General confirm whether he shares similar views to those of his predecessor, the now former Home Secretary, who recently said that she wanted to see a front page of The Telegraph with a flight to Rwanda, and that that was her dream? Surely it is time to dream another dream, and scrap the cruel, inhumane Rwanda scheme in its entirety.

I cannot speak to other people’s dreams. I know the Scottish nationalists have their own dreams, which I do not think will ever be realised, because the Union of this country is what the vast majority of the people of the United Kingdom want to maintain. The convention that I mentioned is important, and I intend to respect it. It protects the ability of Law Officers, as chief legal advisers to the Government, to give full and frank legal advice.

Crown Prosecution Service: Performance in North-west England

9. What recent assessment he has made of the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service in the north-west. (901766)

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the Crown Prosecution Service north-west has consistently achieved a conviction rate that is higher than the national average. The area conviction rate was 84.4%, which is two percentage points higher than the national rate.

It is encouraging that since the CPS published its strategy on rape and serious sexual offences in 2020, the number of rape prosecutions has risen dramatically, with a 62.9% increase recorded. I know, however, that several of my constituents in Hyndburn and Haslingden are keen to see the specialist trauma training for all court staff, police and prosecutors that is being trialled. With such great interest in that scheme, will the Minister please update me on its findings?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the importance of this issue, and more broadly for her support for victims not only in her area, but across the north-west and the country. She should look out for two further specific measures: first, Operation Soteria and its continued roll-out across the country; and secondly the victims Bill. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend on both.